RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 38 - July 2003
  MULTIDIMENSIONAL SPACE  -  A springboard to the Universe

Space exploration is not of utilitarian or commercial importance alone. It is also essential in a field on which no price can ever be put and which has been present throughout the history of humankind: the acquisition of knowledge about the mysteries of the Universe. Today, European scientific programmes are helping to provide some of the answers. 

The Mars Express probe
The Mars Express probe
Weighing just over a tonne, the Mars Express probe – accompanied by the   Beagle 2 micro-robot which it will release on the ‘Red Planet’ – lifted off without a hitch from the Baïkonour cosmodrome on 2 June, on-board a Soyouz rocket. This first European probe to make the trip to Mars will take nearly six months to reach its destination and enter the planet's orbit.

Equipped with an impressive battery of observation instruments, the Mars Express will add considerably to our knowledge of the Martian topography, atmosphere and even sub-soil. A sub-surface radar will be able to probe to a  depth of several kilometres to check for the presence of the subterranean water tables which many believe exist.

As to the Beagle 2   (30 kilos), this will be jettisoned by the probe five days before it arrives at its destination. It will be protected during its descent by a heat shield, slowed by a huge parachute and then cushioned by air bags to ensure a soft landing on the Martian equatorial soil. In this zone, where the sediment which has built up very probably indicates the former abundant presence of water, the robot's miniature sterilised instruments will study in situ possible traces of former – or even present – biological activity. 

Beagle 2 leaving Mars Express
Beagle 2 leaving Mars Express
Two decades of missions
The second highlight of the European Space Agency's scientific programme for 2003,(1) Mars Express is one of a series of some 20 very varied scientific missions carried out over the past two decades or more. Some of these are particularly famous, such as the Giotto   probe which, in 1986, brought back striking images and new information on Halley's comet when it passed close to the Earth. 

In addition to studying the solar system – in particular, the observation and analysis of the cycles of variation in the Sun's activity which have such a marked environmental effect on Earth – spacecraft developed in Europe are making a major contribution to the astrophysical study of the distant Universe. A close partnership between ESA and NASA is responsible for the development of the Hubble, the very famous space telescope which went into orbit in 1990 and which provides a remarkable tool for progress in astronomy worldwide. 

Another example is the launch of the XMM-Newton in December 1999. This detector, the best to date for analysing cosmic X-rays, has provided the international astrophysics community with an instrument with which to study such major phenomena as the history of the Universe, the birth and death of stars, and the formation of black holes, etc. 

Full agenda
European scientific programmes are thus making a prestigious contribution to worldwide astronomic and astrophysical research. This commitment to excellence which is mobilising a very active elite of researchers and deploying an impressive array of avant-garde technologies is set to continue.  

Each project requires a very long preparation process and the diary is very full. More than a dozen launches are currently either scheduled or being prepared for the next decade. These include sending probes to Venus (in 2005), Mercury (2011) and the Sun (2012), and the launching into orbit of an observatory to identify 'exo-planets' (2008), a replacement for the Hubble telescope, and infra-red and microwave ray detectors (2007).

(1) In January, this programme included the Rosetta mission which had to be postponed (see box). Also scheduled for launch later this year is the SMART-1 which will be revisiting the Moon.

  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.

To find out more [ http://sci.esa.int/rosetta/ ] 


  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. 

To find out more [ http://www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Aurora/index.html ]