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What we know that we don’t know about space

A conversation with Ersilia Vaudo

Published: 17 Jan 2023
From the European Space Agency at the Triennale di Milano. The astrophysicist and ESA Chief Diversity Officer, Ersilia Vaudo, has been asked to curate the 23rd International Exhibition together with the winning architect of the Pritzker prize, Francis Kéré. As Ersilia Vaudo explains, the Unknown Unknowns exhibition “invites us to take part in a profound experience that offers us the chance to overturn our idea of the world and view it no longer as a dimension in conflict with what we know, but one to be lived in knowingly and not taken too seriously.”

Space is so immense, we only know about a small part of it. Do you think this is why humans have a constant desire to explore the unknown, the distant and, what seems, unattainable?

I think that asking about our place in the Universe and about what is hidden in the depths of space is something humans have always done ever since we first raised our eyes towards a starry sky and breathed in a moment of infinity. The etymology of the word desire (de sidera esse or “being distant from the stars”) expresses in a certain sense this tension, this yearning to join with a distant and mysterious world that is greater than us. Our relationship with the sky has always fuelled our imaginations and stimulated questions and queries about the very meaning of our existence.

One element that emerges from the exhibition is a clear interdisciplinary approach to the search for a definition of the unknown. What was it like working as an astrophysicist and Special Advisor on Strategic Evolution at ESA, with an architect like Francis Kéré, the Triennale staff and philosophers like Emanuele Coccia?

The theme of the unknown came out of a symposium held on 4 March 2020 organised by the Triennale President, Stefano Boeri. I said that what we know about the universe is thanks to light, but that is only 5% of everything. Gravity also shows that 95% of the Universe is completely unknown. From the comments of other experts, who spoke about, for example, oceans or awareness, what seemed to emerge was the enormity of what we don’t know or what we don’t know we don’t know. The theme of the unknown seemed to be a common thread that had great potential for creativity as well as being a very topical theme. We were at the start of lockdown. We thought we at least had some control over the near future, whereas an unexpected virus arrived that turned everything upside down. The unknown therefore seemed to us to be a strong theme that could be defined in an interdisciplinary way and would bring out new perspectives. Putting together science, architecture, design and art, we have given shape to an unknown that is no longer antagonistic, but a dimension in which we can live in and let ourselves go. It is a narrative held together by leitmotifs of poetry and amazement.

Movements like Fridays for future often use the slogan: “There is no Planet B”, meaning there is no alternative planet. How does the exhibition deal with the theme of the environment on Earth?

The exhibition starts from an anthropocentric vision from which we gradually move away towards something that disregards but includes us. And from there, we turn back to ourselves and our planet. In the final installation, sponsored by the ESA, we approach the Earth by looking at it from a distance, like astronauts or aliens discovering a magnificent planet. This is centred on a large hemisphere on which scientific data are projected, regarding the melting of ice packs, global warming, pollution, wind flow etc. These, almost hypnotic images, are an opportunity to raise awareness of both the beauty and fragility of our planet. To return to “There is no Planet B”, it is important to emphasize that the study of Mars is not purely from the perspective of preparing a planet B, but also of preserving the Earth. On Mars, millions of years ago, conditions were very similar to those on Earth today. There was a balance there too in the atmosphere between liquid and solid that leapt upwards at a certain point. The scientific part that focuses on Mars also seeks to understand what happened and prevent the same thing happening to us. The European Space Agency plays an important role in this. The Copernicus system developed for the European Commission is the world's first producer of Earth observation data. It is a huge contribution to understanding the phenomena that occur on our planet and helping us face tomorrow’s challenges. Space is not only about exploring what's outside, but of taking care of the Earth, “the only home we've ever had” as Sagan would say.
What we know that we don’t know about space
Gaia’s stellar motion for the next 400 thousand years. Credit: ESA Gaia DPAC
The great tech multibillionaires, from Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk, are investing more and more in space exploration and they dream of building colonies on Mars. The exhibition talks a lot about both space habitability and exploration. What role do 3D printers play in this?

3D printers have certainly contributed to the exhibition. They were brought in for the first time by Joseph Grima, the architect who designed and created the setting that follows the curved lines in which the exhibition is staged, in a sort of imaginary semi-orbit with the Palazzo delle Arti as the centre of gravity. To follow this curve, avoiding any corners or sharp edges, the setting was created with 3D printers, using exclusively organic materials, like rice paper. In the theme part of the exhibition, there is a design section and I asked the SOM architects to compile a handbook indicating everything a future student of extra-terrestrial architecture should know. More specifically, what you need to know if you want to go and build something on the moon. The first five lessons are about interacting with the environment, including gravity. Then, a second part focuses on what it means to live in such a different environment and the importance of thinking about the community and the ecosystem. Going back to 3D printers, they will be essential if we really are going to build things on the Moon. It obviously won’t be possible to take one brick at a time, so materials that are already on the Moon will have to be used, which basically means regolith. 3D printers can build and optimize the use of materials according to their purpose, thereby increasing sustainability and minimising waste.

Is light the leading actor in space? It seems that way, judging from the many photos of space that immediately go viral, from sunspots to the beautiful shot of the sunrise seen from the ISS taken by astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

Light is a time machine. When we look at a starry sky, we are actually looking back through a multiplicity of times. If we enjoy a spritz with a friend at sunset, we share a piece of the present, but the sunset is already in the past. The fact that light travels means that we live in an overlap of times. Another interesting fact regards the origin of light. Light was born a long time after space and time: about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. We can still see the first light that was born and we have images of the first photons thanks to the Planck satellites. These are images of the very first light. Then, of course, there is the wow effect of astronauts’ photos, which include amazing shots of sunrises, sunsets, the northern lights and the moving planet. After all, light is also an activator of emotions.