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|N° 38 - July 2003|
A disappointment called Rosetta
Throughout 2002, astrophysicists were rubbing their hands in anticipation. At last, everything was ready for Ariane 5 to launch into space, on 12 January 2003, the Rosetta probe – a superbly equipped state-of-the-art device and the fruit of a decade's development. Its mission was one of the most ambitious ever undertaken by ESA: to repeat the superb exploit by its predecessor Giotto in the late 1980s by seizing the opportunity to follow and study Comet Wirtanen for almost two years as it passed close to the Sun.
The Rosetta mission promised to be quite a feat, as this comet chaser would not catch up with its prey until 2011, but would then follow it for two years travelling at a speed of around 135 000 km/hour. It would also release an explorer robot which would come to rest on the comet's hard core which measures one kilometre across. The mission was of enormous importance as comets are a mine of information on the history of our solar system.
Unfortunately, the Ariane 5 accident less than a month before the launch date threw everything into doubt. A ban was imposed on all further launches, and was not lifted until April 2003. The probe's flight plan required a mid-February launch at the latest as after that Comet Wirtanen would ‘fly off’ once again far beyond the reach of the Rosetta.
But Rosetta will only be grounded for a year. Another comet, known as the Churyumov-Gerasimenko, will fly into range in February 2004. The rendezvous is already set, although Rosetta will not show up until... 2014. As well as everything else, space exploration also requires patience.
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Aurora – a view of the 21st century
And why should not man land on Mars one day before going on to penetrate deeper into the solar system? Although it still has something of science fiction about it, the question is nevertheless being studied very seriously. To go some way to answering it, in 2001 Europe decided to set up the Aurora programme with the task of identifying the direction manned flights to distant destinations could take over the next two or three decades.
Space sciences and technologies are at present developing at an astounding rate. Universe observation satellites are increasing in number and performance, as are the space probes exploring deep into our solar system. As the International Space Station comes into full service, so man's presence in space will become almost a routine affair. The combination of all these developments is leading to questions about man's command of the Cosmos and to preparations for possible new steps several decades from now.
With a view to 'man's conquest' of Mars, Aurora is acting on the 'push' and 'pull' effect of technology. How can the dynamic of 'terrestrial' technological progress be used to favour increased creativity in developing new space ventures? Conversely, how can the demand generated by ambitious space projects serve as a motor for innovation? While always remembering, of course, that investments in space research are at the origin of a growing number of derived applications, sometimes in the most unexpected fields.
Aurora is also the standard-bearer of a certain ambition on the part of European science and technology, offering young generations new frontiers which will shape their future.
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