In the Spotlight

Windows to Earth and Beyond

In the Spotlight

Windows to Earth and Beyond

Available in

    Fourteen years ago, on February 8th, 2010, the Space Shuttle Endeavour embarked on a journey carrying two modules for the International Space Station (ISS): Node 3 (Tranquility) and the Cupola, both designed, integrated and tested by Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy. These modules marked a significant leap in space exploration technology.

    img of Cupola

    © NASA

    A marvel of engineering, the Cupola stands as a testament to human ingenuity. Designed as a panoramic observatory, it offers ISS crews an unparalleled view of our planet. With seven windows, six on the sides and one on top, as well as its practical applications for guiding operations and conducting scientific research, it allows astronauts to contemplate the Earth in all its splendor, day and night, fostering a sense of connection with their home planet.

    The Cupola’s legacy continues to inspire today. In Turin, the same buildings and workspaces where it came into being are now giving rise to the next generation of windowed solutions designed for future space exploration.

    img of cupola and node 3

    © ESA

    For the future commercial space station in low Earth orbit, Thales Alenia Space is re-inventing the concept of windowed modules to provide future astronauts with the utmost comfort and an extraordinary experience.

    For the upcoming Axiom Space Station, Thales Alenia Space in Italy started work on two Habitation Modules with windows in 2021. Each module has four window assemblies for each crew member’s quarters, facing Earth with a superb view of our blue planet.

    The window design prioritizes redundancy, maximizing the field of view while ensuring high-quality transparency through dedicated coating solutions to maintain clarity over the station’s lifespan. Each window assembly comprises inner and outer subassemblies designed to function as pressurization elements, affording protection against meteorites and debris.

    Thales Alenia Space in Italy has used innovative technology, opting for acrylic as the primary window material to optimize the windows’ mass and mechanical strength. However, they still incorporate glass for the outer debris pane to shield the acrylic from radiation exposure.


    © Thales Alenia Space

    Window assembly qualification testing is ongoing, while integration and acceptance tests for the first four flight models’ inner window assembly were completed at Thales Alenia Space’s Turin facility end 2023.

    Thales Alenia Space is now setting its sights even further on lunar outposts and beyond. From the Lunar Gateway outpost to surface modules, these windows will provide not only stunning vistas but also crucial insights for astronauts navigating the challenges of space.

    Windows will be an essential element for exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), beginning with the Gateway outpost where, inside the European ESPRIT refueling and telecommunication module, they will enable crews to monitor external operations and provide breathtaking views of Earth, the Moon, and surrounding space environment. Featuring windows all around an entire bay of its pressurized module, ESPRIT will undoubtedly prove valuable to the well-being of crew members.

    esa esprit

    © ESA

    For Moon surface applications, Thales Alenia Space is tasked with characterizing the new design and materials of the windows to withstand the lunar environment. This work is already underway with significant pre-development activities for the ASI Multi-Purpose Module (MPM) program. Under the recently initiated ASI Multi-Purpose Habitat (MPH) program, the windows will be of limited size and positioned near the surface module’s extravehicular activity (EVA) door, thus enabling astronauts to check internal and external conditions when entering or exiting the MPH. Ongoing developments will lead to further upgrades and enhancements in window design to ensure optimal material, coating and sealing solutions, and provisions to prevent dust contamination, which is likely the most challenging aspect when on the surface.


    © ASI

    Windows will also be a crucial element for future expeditions to deep space and Mars. During the eight-to-nine month journey to the red planet, windows will alleviate the sense of confinement for the crew.

    Walter Cugno, Vice President Exploration and Science, is the Director of the Turin facility. With his extensive experience in project management on most of the ISS programs, he played a key role in the development of Node 3 and the Cupola. So there is perhaps nobody better qualified to enlighten us on the legacy and future of windows in space:

    “I remember the cutting-edge solutions devised to deliver such an incredible piece of technology like the Cupola. Engineers aren’t keen when you start making holes in pressurized structures. It’s a huge challenge to have windows in space. Today, it’s amazing and rewarding to see the key role the Cupola has acquired in 14 years aboard the ISS. As well as the technical side supporting external activities, astronauts see it as a window to Earth and an escape from the confinement of the modules, connecting them with their planet. Now that the space sector has opened up to commercial players, easing access to low Earth orbit, ensuring comfort for people visiting orbital stations will be a key success factor and windows are surely set to play a vital role, even more so on longer trips into deep space. The Gateway and future lunar surface outposts will incorporate windows to maintain a connection to planet Earth, to mitigate claustrophobia and to provide a view for operations outside the modules. If I ever had the chance to travel to the Moon, I’m sure that being able to see the Moon and Earth from space would be worth the journey alone.”