Aurora: opportunities for European industry
“We cannot guarantee success, but we can deserve it.” (*) That was the message from Franco Ongaro, head of the European Space Agency’s Aurora Programme Office, at the conclusion of a special industry workshop held during early February.
Present at the meeting, held at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), based in the Netherlands, were some 80 representatives of European and Canadian companies who were keen to learn more about the opportunities and challenges presented by the pioneering Aurora programme.
“Our second Aurora Industry Day was very well received,” said Franco Ongaro. “We were delighted to see that so many companies and research organisations are interested in our robotic exploration missions and in the development of exploration-related technologies.”
“Industrial studies for the four approved missions of the Aurora programme will begin in the next few weeks, and the participants from industry appreciated the opportunity to learn about the overall Aurora programme and to be informed of the way it is rapidly evolving,” he added.
“They also expressed their appreciation with respect to the programme’s well defined goals and strategy, both short and long term, as well as its fully integrated technology plan. This information is important in helping companies to decide how they can best contribute to this exciting vision of the future.”
The meeting began with an overview of the Aurora programme, which is currently in a three-year preparatory period. When this initial stage is completed in late 2004, programme officials intend to produce a long term plan for the robotic and human exploration of the solar system, together with an updated programme proposal for the period 2005-2009.
This was followed by a number of presentations summarising the current status of Aurora activities. Alain Pradier, Aurora Technology Manager explained the need to develop new, innovative technologies to support the initial robotic missions and pave the way for the human exploration programme. In particular, the agency is seeking generic technologies that may be used or adapted for multiple missions over the next few decades.
“It is our intention to increase safety, reduce cost and improve performance,” explained Pradier.
Considerable emphasis was also placed on the results of preliminary ESA studies to define the first four robotic missions. These include two major Flagship missions (ExoMars and Mars Sample Return), and two smaller Arrow missions (Mars Aerocapture Demonstrator and the Earth Re-entry Vehicle).
These robotic and demonstrator missions, along with a coherent technology development plan and ground simulation work, will pave the way for more ambitious missions and eventually a human expedition to Mars.
ExoMars is currently expected to launch in 2009. After studying numerous options, ESA experts envisage sending two separate spacecraft to Mars during the same launch window. The first of these would include an orbiter and a descent module that would deliver a large rover to the surface of the Red Planet. A second 'carrier' spacecraft would deliver four Netlander stations to investigate the Martian environment.
Testing of rendezvous and docking techniques on the ExoMars mission will prepare the way for the second Flagship mission, a Mars Sample Return that will drill for Martian soil and rock for analysis back on Earth. Launch is expected to take place in 2011.
In-flight demonstrations of some critical technologies required for these groundbreaking expeditions will be undertaken during the two preceding Arrow missions. The Earth re-entry vehicle, to be launched in 2007, will be designed to survive a high speed re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, while the 2009 Mars aerocapture demonstrator will validate a lightweight, inflatable heatshield that can be deployed for braking into orbit.
Invitations to Tender for phase A or pre-phase A studies of these precursor missions will be issued in the next few weeks, opening the way for industry to participate in the future exploration of the solar system. Two parallel contracts for each mission are foreseen. In the case of the two Arrow technology demonstration missions, one of the contracts for the pre-phase A studies will be available for smaller, non-prime contractors.
Approved by the ESA Council in the autumn of 2001, Aurora is intended to formulate and implement a European long-term plan for the robotic and human exploration of the solar system. The ultimate objective is to send a human expedition to Mars by 2030. (*) Originally quoted by George Washington, who later became the first President of the United States.