From the first time Galileo thought to turn his ‘optik tube’ telescope skywards, scientific discovery has always depended on technological achievement. It required Leeuwenhoek’s microscope to reveal the previously unknown realm of microbiology, while 20th-century radio telescopes opened up the wider Universe.
The same holds true of modern space science. For many years ahead of each new ESA scientific spacecraft, carefully planned R&D programmes have been taking place to ensure the correct technology ends up being available at a suitable development level at the right time to make the mission feasible.
For instance, ESA’s proposed Athena X-ray observatory is planned to survey a violent Universe of exploding stars, black holes and million-degree gas clouds. But simply focusing X-rays is no easy task: they reflect only side on, like stones skimming along a pond. So ESA has pioneered the new technology of silicon pore optics – the careful robotic stacking of thousands of silicon wafers – to provide improved resolution and a greatly enlarged collecting area compared to current X-ray missions.
ESA’s 2015 BepiColombo mission to orbit Mercury required the careful testing of new materials, coatings and thermal control to endure intense sunlight and temperatures topping 450°C on one side, at the same time as the extreme cold of the other side facing deep space. Solar Orbiter, venturing into close orbit around our parent star, will need higher endurance still. And R&D is ongoing for ESA’s 2022 Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer to the Jupiter system. ‘Low intensity low temperature’ (LILT) solar cells and other key spacecraft systems must be tailored to resist the gas giant’s searing radiation belts.
Last update: 8 December 2012