European Space Exploration: Science and Robotics

Foreign Policy, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

European Space Exploration: Science and Robotics


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Current European space robotic exploration missions are studying various aspects of the solar system, from investigating comets to helping understand the origins of the universe, and from asteroid fly-bys to preparing for eventual human spaceflight to Mars.

Ulysses. Constructed in Europe and launched in 1990 on NASA's space shuttle Discovery, Ulysses successfully orbited the poles of the sun for more than 17 years, giving scientists an unparalleled view of the heliosphere--the magnetic bubble created by solar wind that carries the solar magnetic field well beyond the outer reaches of the solar system.

One of the mission's major objectives was the study of the solar wind, a constant stream of charged particles expelled by the sun. The solar wind's gusts and shocks can cause geomagnetic storms that may influence the weather on Earth, and harm satellites, power supplies, and communications. Ulysses' rich scientific harvest has completely changed scientists' view of the sun's magnetic influence on the charged particles that populate the space in which Earth's satellites and astronauts operate.

Mars Express. Launched in 2003 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Mars Express orbiter and lander were designed to investigate the Martian atmosphere, providing high-resolution photo geology and mineralogical mapping. ESA's first planetary visit also seeks to answer fundamental questions about the history of water and the potential for life on Mars.

Although the lander, Beagle 2, was lost on landing, the Mars Express orbiter has taken breathtaking high-resolution images of the planet's surface, including images of the snow-laden North Pole. Recent data from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) on board Mars Express has revealed that both polar ice caps are 3.5 kilometers thick. MARSIS is the first radar instrument ever flown to Mars, and continues to send back pioneering subsurface sounding measurements that indicate underground water and ice deposits.

The orbiter has also discovered mineralogical evidence of the presence of liquid water throughout Martian history, studied the density of the Martian crust in detail, and was the first orbiting spacecraft to detect methane in the planet's atmosphere.

ExoMars. Due to launch in 2016, ExoMars marks an important milestone in potential human exploration of the Red Planet. ExoMars is the first element of a series of joint NASA-ESA robotic Mars missions, and consists of an orbiter to support future Mars missions as well as a descent module that carries a rover with a drill and scientific payload.

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Venus Express Launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in late 2005, Venus Express is a virtual twin of Mars Express. Since its arrival, Europe's first mission to Venus has been investigating various aspects of the planet's atmosphere to gain a better understanding of why Earth and Venus--two planets so similar in size, mass, and composition--have evolved so differently over the past four billion years.

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Venus Express has revealed astonishing details of the dynamic Venusian cloud system, detected water molecules escaping into the atmosphere, found evidence of lightning in the atmosphere, and provided infrared glimpses of the hot surface. Scientists have mapped the planet's thick, noxious atmosphere globally for the first time in 3D, and used the data to produce the first extensive meteorological maps of Venus, providing measurements of wind fields, temperatures, and the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

Rosetta. Designed to orbit and land on a comet, Rosetta was launched from Kourou in 2004 and will be the first space vehicle to thoroughly explore a comet at close quarters. Rosetta aims to study the origin of comets, which are among the most primitive objects in the solar system, to better understand the evolution of the universe. …

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