Infrastructure boost for planetary science in Europe
How do planets form? How do they evolve? What could their past tell us about our own planet's future? An EU-funded project facilitating access to crucial data and top-flight infrastructure is placing planetary scientists in a better position to explore such questions as part of Europe's cutting-edge contribution to space research.
© Alex Pritz/Europlanet
One day, we may indeed have colonies on Mars and manned missions heading further out into our planetary neighbourhood. But until scientists interested in other planets can actually go and see for themselves, they have to find other ways to study the objects of their interest for example, by designing technology to do the exploring for them.
The EU-funded EPN2020-RI project set out to support Europe's planetary science community in its task, by providing its members with easier access to unique research facilities, specialised tools and crucial data. In doing so, it is pursuing the development of Europlanet, a distributed research infrastructure for planetary science whose construction was initiated and advanced by two earlier EU-backed projects.
'Space research and planetary exploration can essentially only be done in Europe by collaborating across all European countries, to get critical mass both in terms of academic input and industrial input,' says project coordinator Nigel Mason of the United Kingdom's Open University and University of Kent. 'Our research infrastructure aims to provide the linkages needed between European partners to exploit the facilities that we have across Europe.'
On a mission
Europlanet's transnational access programme includes field sites that are similar, in a number of ways, to surfaces on Mars and on the moons Europa and Titan, which respectively orbit Jupiter and Saturn. Such 'space analogues' are used, for example, to test equipment under realistic conditions.
The research infrastructure also encompasses labs where the conditions of environments on other planets can be recreated or simulated, and facilities for the analysis of meteors and samples brought back from space. In addition, Europlanet offers access to a wealth of data and sophisticated online tools for its analysis.
Networking research facilities is, however, just one of the infrastructure's many objectives. Europlanet also strives to strengthen ties throughout the European planetary science community. To do so, it launched and runs Europe's largest annual international meeting in the field. And in September 2018, it founded the Europlanet Society, a membership organisation dedicated to the advancement of European planetary science that is open to all institutions or individuals with an active interest in the field.
Europlanet is also deeply committed to citizen science, says Mason, who highlights amateur astronomers' outstanding contribution. 'The data they produce is very valuable many asteroids and comets are actually identified by amateurs before they are seen by professionals,' he explains.
Public engagement is another priority for example, as a way to interest more young people in possible careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
'The space-based industry in Europe has been complaining for some time that it doesn't have enough people with the right skills coming through from universities and colleges,' Mason says.
The space industry is not the only sector to benefit from interest and investment in planetary science. Technologies suitable for demanding applications in space have potential applications in other sectors, as varied as mining, medicine and the monitoring of air quality.
Planetary science can also tell us a lot about our own planet, Mason says. As an example, he refers to Venus's atmosphere, which is often described as having a runaway greenhouse effect. 'If we can understand why Venus went from a potentially habitable world to an uninhabitable one, maybe we can understand a bit more what could happen here on Earth,' he says. 'As we are going through global warming, do we really want to become Venus?'
The project partners are already making plans for the next stage in the development of the infrastructure, in the hope that funding for a follow-on project can be secured once EPN2020-RI ends.
Among other objectives, Europlanet is planning to widen its scope, says Mason. Particular attention will focus on facilities that relate to understanding and returning to the moon, or to testing instruments for a planned mission to Jupiter and its icy moons, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.
The consortium is also planning to extend its geographical reach in Europe, Mason adds, and Europlanet is keen to form partnerships with space communities in other parts of the world. 'We aim to be the forum and the spokesgroup for European planetary science working with other space communities, for example in Africa, China, India and South America,' he says.
Some of these communities are established, others are new: 'If countries are interested in setting up their own space programmes, we want them to collaborate with us in Europe,' Mason adds.