Europe off to Space despite Earthly Woes

Article excerpt

Europe Offto Space Despite Earthly Woes

Even as the U.S. space program finds its horizons narrowed by budget cuts, the European Space Agency (ESA) appears determined to defy economic gravity, launching an ambitious space exploration program amid a deepening sovereign debt crisis. While an under performing economy has damped U.S. space aspirations, most members of the ESA remain committed to forging ahead with plans to explore the universe, including projects on the Columbus space laboratory and missions to explore dark matter.

Launched in 2008, the Columbus laboratory has served as a platform for research into material science, physics, human physiology, and biology, in addition to Earth observation, according to Thomas Reiter, the ESA's director of human spaceflight and operations, who views space exploration as an innovation driver. Now, he said, Europe needs to "maximize the use of knowledge gained through aerospace research by developing new technologies for the benefit of people here on Earth." And with its new space missions, he added, the bloc will create incentives for its scientists and engineers to acquire still greater expertise in space science and technology that will benefit later generations.

Among Europe ' s most ambitious new space exploration plans is its planned mission to explore Jupiter and its icy moons in search of liquid water that could shelter life. In May, the ESA approved the billion-euro JUICE (JUpiter ICy moon Explorer) space probe. It is the agency's next "large class" mission planned under its Cosmic Vision program, which runs from 2015 to 2025. The 5-ton satellite will be one of the largest ever to explore outer planets. It will also be the first solar-powered spacecraftto journey to Jupiter; JUICE will use massive solar panels to capture enough energy to keep its instruments running.

Slated to launch in 2022, the spacecraftwill require eight years to reach the Jovian system. Once there, it will spend at least three years probing Jupiter and then use the planet's gravity to initiate a series of close fly-bys around Callisto and Europa before finally putting itself into a settled orbit around Ganymede. All three moons are suspected of having oceans of water below their icy surfaces. But Ganymede, the solar system's biggest moon, is believed to be the only one in the system with its own magnetic field, which could offer protection against Jupiter's powerful radiation belts, making it more likely that life might survive there.

The data that JUICE will send back about the varied environments of Jupiter and its icy moons will benefit many areas of science, according to Frederic Pont, a physics professor at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. He views the JUICE mission as "highly significant for astrophysics and planetary science," to cite just two fields likely to be affected by the mission. He considers the subsurface oceans of Ganymede and Europa to be "the most exciting frontier" in the solar system "now that Mars has turned out to be almost entirely barren."

The JUICE satellite was originally intended to fly in tandem with a NASA orbiter designed to explore Europa. The U.S. space administration, however, had to back out of the proposed double mission due to budget cuts, meaning the agency would not have enough money for a Europa orbiter until 2020 at the earliest. It has since agreed to make a $100 million contribution to the ESA's Jovian program.

The Cosmic Vision plan also includes two "medium class" missions: Euclid, which is intended to explore the hidden side of the universe-dark energy and dark matter-by putting a telescope in space, and the Solar Orbiter. In June, the Euclid mission reached another milestone: the agency's science program committee gave final approval to move into full preparations for a planned 2020 launch. …