Space Agency Profiles: The European Space Agency (Part IV)

Space Agency Profiles: The European Space Agency (Part IV)

Space Agency Profiles: The European Space Agency (Part IV)

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By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

This article is the fourth article in a four-part series profiling space agencies around the world. In this final article, we will look at the specific details of the Cosmic Vision mission agenda and how they are materializing.

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The new Cosmic Vision mission agenda – guided by the new European Space Policy – groups astrophysics, fundamental physics, and solar system exploration missions into small class, medium class, and large class missions. The small class mission agenda of the European Space Agency’s Cosmic Vision plan consists, so far, of the following two missions:

1)  Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite (CHEOPS) – The CHEOPS mission consists of an optical satellite, put into a sun-synchronous orbit and aimed at known exoplanets in the nearby regions of the Milky Way galaxy. The aim is to try to understand the formation of extrasolar planets. This telescope launched in December 2019 and has a 3.5-year expected lifespan.

2) Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE) – SMILE is a joint partnership between the ESA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The SMILE spacecraft will be equipped with soft x-ray imagers, UV imagers, light ion analyzers and magnetometers.

The goal of SMILE’s mission will be to study the ways in which Earth’s magnetosphere interacts with the Sun’s solar wind. The spacecraft is slated to launch in 2023. Even though small class Cosmic Vision missions are supposed to be capped at €50M, the SMILE mission is currently anticipated to cost ~€92M.

Medium Class Missions of ESA’s Cosmic Vision

The medium class group of ESA’s Cosmic Vision missions has three confirmed missions:

  • Solar Orbiter – The Solar Orbiter mission will take detailed measurements of the inner heliosphere of the Sun, the nascent solar wind and the polar regions of our star. Along its eccentric orbit, it will travel closer than Mercury to the Sun (just .284 astronomical units at closest approach) at times, providing the closest-ever look at our Sun. The spacecraft launched in February 2020, and the mission is anticipated to last anywhere from seven to ten years, depending on craft health and program funding.
  • Euclid – The Euclid mission consists of a space telescope calibrated for the visible and near-infrared spectra. Euclid’s aim is to understand more about the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, specifically through precise measurements of the acceleration of universal expansion.

Euclid will also pick up on some of the research from the Planck mission. Euclid is scheduled for launch in 2022 and is planned to last at least six years, assuming funding and craft health allow it.

  • Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars (PLATO) – PLATO will be a space observatory aimed primarily at the discovery of new exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. It will use 26 optical telescopes and cameras to try to detect exoplanet transits.

Similar to the NASA Kepler mission, the PLATO craft will detect new exoplanets by measuring dips in light emissions from distant stars. These dips occur when an exoplanet crosses between its host star and our line of view, blocking some of the light during the transit.

Specifically, PLATO will look for exoplanets in the “habitable” zone – the range of distances from a host star such that temperatures on the planet would allow for water to exist in liquid form on a planet’s surface. The overarching goal here is to identify exoplanets that might be suitable environments for the kind of life we observe on Earth. PLATO is scheduled for launch in 2026.

In addition to the three confirmed missions, the European Space Agency has sent out calls for at least two other missions. Although the selection process has not concluded for the fourth mission, the ESA has narrowed their potential considerations to a shortlist of three candidates:

  • The Atmospheric Remote-Sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-Survey (ARIEL), a satellite that would study the chemical composition of exoplanets and their atmospheres
  • The Turbulence Heating Observer (THOR), a satellite that would study the heating of plasma in space; and
  • The X-Ray Imaging Polarimetry Explorer (XIPE), a satellite that would study x-ray emissions from deep space.

The fifth mission is still in the early phases of selection, but a shortlist has not yet been identified.

Large Class Missions of the ESA

Finally, the last group of Cosmic Vision missions is the large class missions. There are currently three large class missions:

  • Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) – The JUICE mission will use an Airbus-designed spacecraft to visit three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons: Ganymede, Calisto and Europa. All three of these moons are believed to maintain subsurface liquid water oceans through geothermal heating, and some have theorized that life might exist in these oceanic environments.

The spacecraft will be equipped with cameras, spectrometers, magnetometers and ice-penetrating radar technology, which should allow it to determine the compositions of the moons and their subsurface habitability. JUICE is slated to launch in 2022 and won’t reach the Jovian system until 2030. Once it arrives, it has an expected mission lifespan of three and a half years.

  • Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA) – ATHENA will be an x-ray telescope developed to study the physical properties of gas structures and to search for supermassive black holes in the universe. While ATHENA will pick up research from some earlier x-ray telescopes such as XMM-Newton and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, it will be a full 100 times more sensitive than any x-ray instrument that has so far preceded it, and so it should dramatically further our understanding in these areas. ATHENA is slated for launch in 2031, and has a planned mission duration of five years.
  • The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) – LISA is the mission for which the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft prepared the ESA a few years ago. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a ground-based laser interferometer, successfully detected gravitational waves in 2015. This achievement was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century, as it validated Einstein’s gravitational wave theories first proposed more than 100 years ago.

The LISA mission will consist of an array of three satellites in space and will look for the same gravitational waves as LIGO, but at much lower frequencies than can be detected by ground-based instruments. LISA is not scheduled for launch until 2034.

The ESA has been a very active part of the global effort to explore and study space and its phenomena, and ESA missions have made significant contributions over the years to our understanding of our place in the universe. It is my hope that the ESA will continue to receive increased funding and support from its member nations. I also hope that the European Space Agency will execute missions and programs over the next few decades that are just as impressive and impactful if not more so than its past missions.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.