Into Orbit - Public Service Review, Science and Technology December 2009

Herschel and Planck
Herschel and Planck
15 December 2009

Space represents a powerful motivation for young generations to embrace scientific studies, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain tells Public Service Review...

At the end of a momentous year for the European Space Agency, Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain reflects on the key challenges and opportunities as we go forward to the next decade.

What role does space play in Europe's global ambitions?

Space has become a crucial tool to respond, or contribute to respond, to the global challenges that Europe is facing and will face in the next decades. For all its policies, such as environment and energy, research, transport, but also security, Europe needs space as the irreplaceable means to collect, transmit and disseminate large quantities of data instantaneously and all over the globe.

Indeed, energy and environment issues have largely influenced the overall geo-political context in 2009. Europe is expected to keep playing a leading role in these policy topics and space will be an important tool towards the achievement of solutions to these global issues, for instance thanks to the recent successful launch of ESA’s SMOS satellite which will allow us to better understand the water cycle.

Space is also essential for our economy, thanks to the technology breakthroughs required for the challenging space missions which enhance the competitiveness and innovative capacity of European industry on the world-wide market.

The role of ESA as a global agency was reinforced with the very positive outcome of the ESA Council meeting at Ministerial level at the end of 2008 when important programmatic decisions were taken and adequate funds were made available for their implementation.

The role of the EU as space player will be further consolidated firstly thanks to the competencies provided by the Lisbon treaty and secondly as new EU financial perspectives (2014-2020) are in preparation. The EU Lisbon treaty specifically addresses space for the first time giving it an unprecedented “political dimension”, and providing an explicit shared competence in space to the EU, and refers to the establishment of EU relations with ESA while putting the EU as one of the three pillars of Space in Europe together with ESA and Member states.

And since 2007, a wide-ranging European strategic framework has been set up by the EU and ESA Ministers in charge of Space who gathered at top level summits on several occasions to support a structured European Space Policy. Its priorities have been identified as such:

  • Develop and exploit space applications serving Europe’s public policy objectives and the needs of European enterprises and citizens;
  • Meet Europe’s security and defense needs as regards space;
  • Ensure a strong and competitive space industry;
  • Contribute to the knowledge based society by investing in space based science and playing an significant role in the international exploration endeavor; and
  • Secure unrestricted access to new and critical technologies in order to ensure independent European space applications.

What have been the most significant moments for ESA this year?

2009 has been a very successful year for ESA, its Member States and for all European space players in general. It has seen a series of impressive launches of missions which have been decided and developed already several years ago. I will list the most significant events in chronological order.

17 March: Launch of GOCE, an Earth observation satellite to investigate the Earth’s gravitational field with unprecedented resolution and accuracy. GOCE data will be crucial for obtaining accurate measurements of ocean circulation and sea-level change, both of which are affected by climate change. It will provide key data to help better understand processes occurring inside the Earth which are linked to volcanoes and earthquakes.

14 May: Launch of Herschel and Planck. Lifting off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, Ariane 5 has launched two of the most sophisticated astronomical spacecraft ever built –Herschel and Planck. From deep space orbits around the second Lagrangian point, a special observation point beyond the Moon’s orbit, both spacecraft have began a revolutionary observation campaign that will further our understanding of the history of the universe. Herschel is a large far-infrared space telescope designed to study some of the coldest objects in space, in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum still mostly unexplored. Planck is a telescope that will map the fossil light of the universe - light from the Big Bang – with unprecedented sensitivity and accuracy. The first data received are of excellent quality and bode well for the scientific outcome of the mission.

20 May: Selection of six new ESA astronauts. Six recruits joined the European Astronaut Corps this year and started their training to prepare for future missions to the International Space Station, and beyond. The new astronauts are: Samantha Cristoforetti, Italian; Alexander Gerst, German; Andreas Mogensen, Danish; Luca Parmitano, Italian; Timothy Peake, British and Thomas Pesquet, French. They were selected following a Europe-wide recruitment process that started in 2008. Following thorough psychological, medical and professional screening that started with 8413 valid applications, they are the first new recruits to join the European Astronaut Corps since 1992.

27 May: Launch of Frank De Winne/ OasISS mission. The six-month OasISS mission to the International Space Station (ISS) started from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with the launch of a Soyuz rocket. The arrival of Frank De Winne and two other astronauts (a Russian and a Canadian) marked the first ever six-member ISS crew as they joined the three crewmembers already in residence on the Station: a Russian, an American and a Japanese. For the first time all the partners of the International Space Station were present on board at the same time, and for the first time Europe has a Commander on board the ISS as De Winne took on this role in early October and kept it till his return to Earth on 1 December.

This mission opened up new opportunities and projected Europe in the full exploitation of the ISS in preparation of new exploration missions to other destinations. Last year the European Columbus laboratory attached to the ISS and the Automated Transfer Vehicle Jules Verne had demonstrated the reliability and the technological capability of the European Space Agency in the International Space Station endeavor. The scientific equipments and instruments on board Columbus are now operated on a daily basis, and the crew of six can provide much more resources on board to conduct experiments. 29 August: Christer Fuglesang to the ISS. NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery was launched on 29 August for a 13-day mission to service the International Space Station. Among her crew was ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang from Sweden, performing his second spaceflight.

Dubbed “Alissé”, Fuglesang’s mission covered operations to both inside and outside the orbital complex. Fuglesang took part in two of the mission’s three spacewalks. The main objective of these two extra-vehicular activities was to install vital cabling outside the ISS to prepare specifically for the arrival of the ESA-provided Tranquility Node 3 module in 2010. In parallel, the astronauts removed and replaced a depleted ammonia tank assembly used as part of the ISS active thermal control system.

2 November: Launch of SMOS and PROBA-2.The satellites were launched atop a Rockot launch vehicle from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia. As I said above, SMOS will map sea surface salinity and monitor soil moisture on a global scale, thanks to a unique instrument (an interferometric radiometer) that will enable passive surveying of the water cycle between oceans, the atmosphere and land. Traveling piggyback on the launch of SMOS, PROBA-2 is a technological demonstration mission which will demonstrate 17 advanced satellite technologies –such as miniaturized sensors for ESA's future space probes and a highly sophisticated CCD camera with a wide angle view of about 120º – while carrying a set of four science instruments to observe the Sun and study the plasma environment in orbit.

What missions excite you the most?

Each of these missions has given me the same level of excitement, as well as of admiration for the competence and quality of the teams that have contributed to them. They all allow to strengthen the role that Europe has on the international scene. They all have taken advantage of the expertise of thousands of very skilled and highly committed men and women in scientific and research institutes all over Europe, in national Space Agencies, in industry, including small and medium enterprises. They all have contributed in a way or another to bring something back to the citizens of Europe for the improvement of our daily lives or to enhance our knowledge. And finally, what may excite me most as a professor since several decades, is the fact that space represents a powerful motivation for young generations to embrace scientific and technical studies and careers.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges for ESA going forward?

The biggest challenges for ESA going forward is certainly to successfully implement the European Space Policy, and to fulfill its priorities. The first priorities defined were the successful implementation of Galileo (Europe’s satellite global positioning system) and GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) and these two large initiatives will continue to be Europe’s flagship programmes as well as the symbol of the close cooperation between ESA and the EU. We shall also seek to implement the further priorities of the European Space Policy, namely to fully exploit the potential of space for climate change, for innovation and competitiveness, and for security, as well as continue to develop a European vision for space exploration. This will imply in particular the following actions:

  • Pursue the dialogue on security matters with the EC and the EU Council, including the European Defense Agency (EDA), the European Union Satellite Centre (EUSC) and Member States as appropriate;
  • Carry out and coordinate studies on different scenarios to support the debate for a long-term global vision on space exploration, and
  • Prepare data necessary for Member States participating in the ISS Exploitation programme to take decisions by 2010 together with the other ISS partners (NASA for the USA, Roskosmos for Russia, CSA for Canada and JAXA for Japan) about the possible continuation of ISS operations beyond 2015.

What are the highlights for ESA in 2010?

2010 will be again a fantastic vintage year in terms of missions and launches. It will in particular see ESA taking part in two missions to the ISS. The first in February, will be the launch of the European built Cupola, which provides a pressurized observation and work area for the Space Station crew, giving visibility to support the control of the space station remote manipulator system and general external viewing of the Earth, celestial objects and visiting vehicles.

The second mission to the ISS, in July or September, will fly ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori on a Space Shuttle to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the Station, and Paolo Nespoli shall be flying a long duration mission to the ISS starting in late 2010.

In spring the ESA “ice satellite” CryoSat will be launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazachstan on a Dnepr launcher, with objectives to measure ice thickness on both land and sea very precisely, thus providing conclusive proof as to whether there a trend towards diminishing polar ice cover, and furthering our understanding of the relationship between ice and global climate.

Europe's second Automated Transfer Vehicle, ATV Johannes Kepler -an unmanned cargo spacecraft for the International Space Station- is scheduled for launch on an Ariane 5 from Kourou in November 2010. And finally, 2010 will also see the first Soyuz launched from Kourou as well as the maiden flight of ESA’s small launcher Vega. We shall all hold our breath for these first launches of the two new launchers complementing Ariane 5 in the family of European launchers, capable of bringing into orbit all classes of spacecraft, from large platforms and modules to medium and small sized satellites.

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