New Master’s in Space Systems to be launched in September

A new Master’s degree programme in Space Systems will be launched at ETH Zurich in autumn 2024. Interested parties can start applying in April.
An image of a spiral galaxy, taken by the James Webb Telescope - a space system. (Photograph: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), and the PHANGS team)

Researchers at ETH Zurich have long been developing robots for use on the Moon, searching for Earth-like exoplanets and investigating marsquakes on the Red Planet. They research new technology for the space industry and use data from space for climate and security research.

These activities are now to be complemented by a new course of study: a Master’s degree programme in Space Systems. In launching this course, ETH Zurich is fulfilling a long-cherished wish of students, including those who build space rockets and satellites as members of the Aris association. However, the university is also responding to the needs of industry.

The space industry is growing and urgently needs skilled workers. Global investment in the space industry amounts to more than 500 billion dollars and is expected to triple by 2040. Switzerland is home to numerous companies that produce components for the space industry. In addition, new Swiss companies are constantly emerging in this field, including several ETH spin-offs.

Understanding complex space systems

The new Master’s degree programme is an important milestone on the way to taking space science to a higher level at ETH, in Switzerland and in Europe, says Thomas Zurbuchen, former Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa and now a professor at ETH Zurich. He is Director of the ETH Zurich Space initiative (see box), and was the person behind launch of the new degree programme. “The space industry is in desperate need of people who have an overview of the complex systems involved and understand the interdependencies of subsystems – from the propulsion and navigation of launch systems to scientific experiments.”

ETH Zurich Space

The ETH Zurich Space initiative was launched in October 2022 with the aim of expanding space research and teaching at ETH and of  strengthening collaboration with partners from science, industry and space agencies such as ESA and NASA. The Master’s degree programme in Space Systems is one of the initiative’s declared goals.

ETH researcher Simon Stähler is responsible for implementing the new Master’s degree programme; he himself researches marsquakes. He adds: “Gaining access to space is becoming easier, including for commercial players, who can already buy space on satellites today. In the future, we’ll need many more specialists who really understand space systems.”

Focused on commercial space research

Students on the degree programme will gain knowledge of space systems – in other words, satellites, launch vehicles, telescopes and spacecraft – and learn the fundamentals of Earth and planetary sciences and astrophysics. They will also choose from among space engineering, space communication, robotics, earth observation or planetary sciences as the subject of more in-depth studies. Team projects and case studies, in which students from different disciplines work together on solutions, are an integral part of the programme.

As Zurbuchen says, “The Master's programme is unique in Europe because it is highly focused on commercial space research and is consistently interdisciplinary while offering the in-depth knowledge in engineering disciplines and natural sciences that ETH is reknowed  for.”

The degree programme is a joint offering from the four departments of Earth Sciences, Physics, Mechanical and Process Engineering as well as Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. Colaboration with industry plays an integral role, and partnerships with other universities are to be added.

Fastest launch of a degree programme

As of 1 April, students in possession of a Swiss Bachelor's degree or nearing its completion will be able to apply for a place in its pilot year, which starts in September 2024. This is just eight months after planning for the new Master's programme started. Never before has a degree programme been implemented so quickly at ETH. Günther Dissertori, Rector of ETH Zurich, is enthusiastic: “Everyone pulled together right from the outset. It was clear that a programme like this was urgently needed. I’m delighted that the first cohort of students will soon be benefiting from it, and I’d like to thank everyone involved for showing such commitment.”

For international students, the application window for the second year of the course, starting in autumn 2025, will open in November 2024.

The specialised Master’s degree is suitable for students of engineering and the natural sciences who excelled in their undergraduate degree programme and who have some experience in the subject. A solid grounding in mathematics and physics is also required, corresponding to the level of the Bachelor’s degree programmes at ETH.

The Master’s programme is also explicitly open to applicants from other universities. Students who don’t fulfil the subject requirements may be admitted on the condition that they close the relevant gaps and sit additional examinations.