Europe’s vision for space

The European Space Agency lays out its goals for the next decade of space exploration.
By | Published: August 25, 2005
August 25, 2005
Europe’s vision of future space exploration is alive, well, and focused, says Gerhard Schwehm, head of planetary science at ESA, the European Space Agency. The fifteen member nations of ESA have ambitious goals for the decade 2015 to 2025. To meet those goals, they have established several overarching themes.

“We used to call for mission ideas,” says Schwehm, “but now we approach new projects by the use of science themes.” The themes that define ESA’s exploration and funding strategy include understanding the conditions for life and planetary formation; how the solar system works; and determining the universe’s composition, fundamental laws, and origin.

Venus Express
Venus Express, which is set to launch in October, will study the venusian atmosphere and subsurface.
To that end, several missions are in the works. ESA’s Venus Express is being prepped for an October launch from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. And the agency is teaming up with Japan to mount the BepiColombo orbital mission to Mercury, slated for launch by 2012.

Searching for life on Mars is also a major science goal. Studies for Mars landers, orbiters, and rovers are being carried out following the highly successful Mars Express now orbiting the Red Planet. One advanced concept envisions deploying a network of balloons to study martian atmospheric dynamics as well as detailing surface features from low altitude.

A sample-return mission is also an important objective in ESA’s plans. The comet sample-return mission Rosetta is already winding its way toward Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. After a 12-year voyage, the spacecraft will rendezvous with its target in 2014.

Jupiter and its moon Europa are also priorities. Europa’s hypothesized subsurface ocean has broad appeal for the exobiology community. “International cooperation for a Europa mission, especially in light of the Huygens/Cassini success, is important,” Schwehm says.
Rosetta Encountering Comet Wirtanen
Rosetta was to launch toward Comet Wirtanen on January 12, 2003, but the launch was delayed due to recent problems with its rocket. It is now scheduled to launch from Kourou, French Guiana, in February 2004 toward a 2014 rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
ESA/AOES Medialab
Other missions will probe the universe’s origin, including two spacecraft set for launch in 2007: Herschel and Planck. Herschel is a space telescope that will see from far-infrared to submillimeter wavelengths. It will scrutinize the “cold” spectra of the universe, probing how stars and galaxies form. The Planck spacecraft will map the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang, with greater accuracy than ever before (greater than either COBE or WMAP).

LISA Pathfinder will launch in 2008. This mission is a precursor to and technological test bed for ESA and NASA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), set for launch in 2013 to detect gravity waves. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts gravity waves, and their detection will help astronomers understand the universe’s structure.

These are only a few of the many missions ESA has planned. For more on these and other science missions under development, visit ESA’s site .

Michael Carroll is a science writer and astronomical artist, and author of nearly 20 children’s science books. He lives with his family in Colorado.