European Space Agency: What to watch for in 2012

Monday, at the European Space Agency’s Paris headquarters, Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, provided a recap of ESA’s activities in 2011 and presented the missions to expect in the coming year, as well as the ESA philosophy underlying it all.

Monday, at the European Space Agency’s Paris headquarters, Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, provided a recap of ESA’s activities in 2011 and presented the missions to expect in the coming year, as well as the ESA philosophy underlying it all.



ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain
ESA's Director General meets with the press

ESA's Director General meets with the press


Although the European Space Agency (ESA) was not immune to the difficult economic and political situations marking the past year, prompting Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain to cut internal costs, he maintained that he “can’t complain” about ESA’s performance in 2011 and cited a number of highlights.  The first two satellites of the Galileo constellation, for example, were launched and tested, on the way toward validating Europe’s own global satellite navigation system. The project, which will send up another pair of satellites in 2012, demonstrates ESA’s commitment to European industry and business – a theme emphasized by Dordain during the talk.

2011 also saw three astronauts travel to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver instruments and carry out experiments: Roberto Vittori, Paolo Nespoli and, most recently, Andre Kuipers, on December 21. Earlier last fall, six of their earthbound counterparts reached a milestone as the Mars500 mission came to an end.  Designed to study the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, in preparation for a future manned mission to Mars, volunteer “crewmembers” from Europe, Russia and China spent 520 days in a simulated spacecraft. Without ever leaving Earth, they carried out, with great success, all the steps of a complete mission to Mars.

Even before we reach the Red Planet, the information gained from Mars500 could be useful. Jean-Jacques Dordain says he is committed to establishing manned missions before 2020 because, as he sees it,


“exploration consists of discoveries, not just projects and plans.”


In the immediate future, the Director General’s first priority is Vega.  ESA’s new launcher, designed to carry small satellites to space in a cost-effective way, is scheduled to fly on February 9 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.  Dordain has already declared that there will be no compromises on this date, even if a number of important steps remain to be completed.

Part of the reason for this urgency is demand for use of the Spaceport.  With more and more programs signing up for launches, the risk of interfering with one another is increasing.  If Vega’s first launch is delayed more than a few days, it risks disrupting another mission, ATV-3, due to launch exactly one month later.   The third Automated Transfer Vehicle will deliver some 2.5 tons of supplies to the ISS, including research equipment and the food, water, and gases necessary for life on the station.

Beyond the agency’s goal of increasing scientific knowledge and discovery, Dordain emphasized the importance of services provided by ESA and their strength in reinforcing Europe’s role in the global community.  Two such examples in meteorology are set to launch in 2012.  First, in May, the MetOp-B satellite, whose 11 instruments will help improve weather prediction and contribute data to long-term climate monitoring.  In late June or early July, MSG-3 will follow, the latest in a series of meteorological satellites begun in 1977.

Again turning its eyes toward home, ESA will begin the Swarm mission next summer to survey the Earth’s magnetic field and how it changes over time.  The measurements provided by the three Swarm satellites, traveling in three different polar orbits, will improve our understanding of the planet’s interior and its climate.

Bookending the year, more or less, will be the delivery of two ESA contributions to the James Webb Space Telescope.  The Hubble Space Telescope’s successor will include the instruments MIRI and NIRSpec, due to be completed in February and December, respectively.  MIRI, the mid-infrared instrument, will study distant objects, from comets and the Kuiper Belt to far-off stars and galaxies. All the while, it will send back striking images of the heavens reminiscent of Hubble’s.  The NIRSpec near-infrared spectrograph will determine the chemical composition of distant galaxies and the rate of star formation.  For the first time, using NIRspec data, scientists will also be able to detect water on planets orbiting other stars.


ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain


A recurring theme of budgets and project financing punctuated the message of Director-General Dordain, and an ambitious project for observation of our own planet was no exception.  Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) will consist of five families of Sentinel missions, totaling more than 30 satellites.  Data will be produced for an array of services related to land management, the marine environment, the atmosphere, and climate change, as well as security and emergency response.  ESA, responsible for launching the satellites, is not sure to commit funding to this past 2013, unless it can obtain a guarantee from project partners that money will be found to operate them.  While Dordain does not wish to see the satellites remain on the ground, he believes launching them, only to turn them off for lack of funding, would be even worse.

The Director General feels a responsibility, at the very least, not to worsen the economic difficulties of any ESA member states.  Heartening, though, is the fact that the agency’s 2012 budget closely resembles that of the year before: a vote of confidence showing that space remains a priority for member countries, despite the current economic situation.  Dordain attributes this to three characteristics of the agency’s work: it represents an investment in the future, enhances the global role of Europe, and promotes industrial activity firmly rooted in Europe.

Ultimately, ESA aims to meet the needs of its clients—both governments and telecommunications operators who use their satellites—and to fulfill its commitments to partner agencies.  Talks are underway with NASA and the Russian Roscosmos to develop a funding scenario that would get exobiology mission ExoMars off the ground.  Jean-Jacques Dordain explains that “we’re not at a dead end, but we haven’t found a solution yet.”  If and when they do, ESA will provide two instruments for the ExoMars rover: a drill to collect soil samples from up to two meters below the Martian surface and a laboratory unit, called Pasteur, to analyze them for signs of life, past or present.

Keeping in mind that access to space is an important factor of competitiveness, ESA is intent on providing a reliable host of launchers.  With the era of Ariane coming to a close, the agency is currently considering how best to respond to its clients’ needs and what that will mean for the Next Generation Launcher.  What is sure, according to the Director General, is that Europe needs to maintain a healthy sector of launcher production.  ESA’s commitment to something as earthly as sustainable industry makes sense, and we can expect to see more of it going forward, since, as Dordain puts it,


“We work in space, but we live on the same planet as everybody else.”


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