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Is Europe catching America in Space?

January 16, 2009 on 2:29 pm | In Astronomy, Politics |

10 years ago, this headline would have been absurd. 10 years ago, I went to my very first major scientific conference, and they had representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and many other science organizations. One NASA representative was making the case for enhanced Mars exploration, focusing on manned missions, and accused the ESA of being woefully insignificant in terms of space exploration. The ESA’s retort?

Well, we did send that probe up to Halley’s Comet recently.

That was the Giotto mission, launched in 1985, and that was the biggest news the ESA representative could come up with, 14 years later.

Well, it’s a decade later, now, and the European Space Agency has made public their plans for this year. While NASA’s budget is overrun with huge, long-term projects that are running WAY over cost, like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for 2013 launch), Mars Science Laboratory (pushed back to late 2011), LISA (no date yet, but estimates are at least 2020), and the Joint Dark Energy Mission (tentatively slated for 2016), the ESA is doing some amazing things this year. Let’s take a look:

Soyuz Rockets: The ESA is going to start launching their own rockets, capable of launching missions to space, carrying supplies and astronauts (which they’re recruiting and training right now), and replacing the Space Shuttle when the US retires it in 2010. The new ESA spaceport in French Guyana will begin launching rockets this year.

William Herschel Telescope: This giant space telescope will be the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. It will be more than twice as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope and will gather light from frequencies never measured in space before. It launches in the spring of this year.

Planck Satellite: That leftover radiation from the Big Bang? The stuff that’s shifted into the microwave and is partly responsible for the snow you see on TV when you set it to channel 3? This new satellite is going to measure its properties more accurately than any satellite-based or terrestrial-based experiment before it. The last mission like this, WMAP, taught us precisely how much dark matter and dark energy there was, as well as when the Universe became transparent to visible light. This one is even more accurate than WMAP: and I’m very excited about what we’ll wind up learning from it! It also launches in the spring of this year.

Vega Rocket: Europe’s newest rocket is designed for small, quick, and frequent launches. It makes its first flights this year, and will give Europe consistent, guaranteed access to space.

Frank de Winne: Say hello to the very first European commander of the International Space Station, Belgian Frank de Winne. He becomes commander on May of this year, and will run the ISS and a five-person crew until November.

Studying the Earth: Three satellites, GOCE, SMOS, and Cryosat-2, will all be launched this year, measuring changes in the Earth’s ocean behavior, gravitational field, soil moisture, and land and marine ice thicknesses.

And what is our NASA highlight for 2009? Come on, NASA! Let’s hope a new administrator gets us some good results, a new and improved vision that addresses both long-term, large missions and smaller, short-term ones, and we get back on track!


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  1. Couple of comments:
    ESA/CNES has been launching Ariane rockets from its facility in French Guiana since 1968. It’s one of the premier launch sites in the world. The news you’re reporting is that now ESA has purchased several Soyuz rockets from the Russians and will begin launching them from that location in 2010.
    Secondly, NASA science missions are definitely hurting right now due to the agency’s focus on the Constellation program to develop a successor to the Shuttle and return humans to the moon. The list of missions you cited for both NASA and ESA are only a relatively small subset of relevance to the astrophysics community. Plus, I think you left off one of the most exciting ESA contributions: the automated Jules Verne cargo vessel, which may begin supplying the ISS soon; some even speculate it could be modified for human transport someday.

    Comment by Brian — January 16, 2009 #

  2. Brian, thanks for your comments. I restricted myself to new things that are happening in 2009, and the first Soyuz launch is slated for November 2009 right now.

    The NASA missions I cited were the major ones as a fraction of NASA’s science budget; do with that what you will.

    Right now ESA plans to use the Soyuz rockets for ISS resupplies, which can already accomodate human transport. There is some info about the Jules Verne Cargo unit here:

    Comment by ethan — January 16, 2009 #

  3. I must say that personally I love the ATV. I’m hoping that this marks the beginning of assembling cargo in space with some regularity.

    Shouldn’t it be possible to launch a new Jupiter mission, say, or a Pluto orbiter and then send up the engines separately to get attached in space? That way we wouldn’t have to compromise the scientific payload to make room for fuel. In the case of Pluto we might send up the orbiter, an accellerator and a decellerator separetely in order to ensure that there’s enough energy to slow down once the thing gets to Pluto.

    On a less scientific note, am I the only one to think that the Soyuz looks absolutely gorgeous?

    Comment by Sili — January 17, 2009 #

  4. I agree with you on the cargo assembly in space; it’s a *far* superior idea to pre-assembling things and then having to build a rocket big enough to carry the fully assembled payload up there.

    Actually, Sili, many of the newer designs for spacecrafts and satellites already self-assemble once they’re in space; it’s really neat! The launch is always the most expensive part of a small scientific mission, and that’s why I’m so excited about the Vega rockets; imagine cheap launches!

    And if you want a neat piece of trivia, Cryosat-1 was destroyed, but the ESA deemed it so important that they demanded it be rebuilt and launched; hence, Cryosat-2.

    Comment by ethan — January 17, 2009 #

  5. I think I’ve heard that about Cryosat, yes - just forgotten it again.

    It helps to be European, I s’pose.

    Thanks. I’ll be looking forward to seeing the Venetia probe enter orbit around Pluto. I doubt I’ll have anything to do with its comissioning or construction, though. But let me call dibs on the name.

    Comment by Sili — January 18, 2009 #

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