Missions beyond imagination
Any vision needs resources to become reality. When the ESA governing bodies have assigned the financial portfolio for the scientific programme of the coming years, ESA will be able to consolidate the scientific priorities into space missions for the decade 2015-2025.
The exploration of planets and moons in the Solar System, as well as the search for life and primeval material, could be conducted with probes sent to Jupiter and Europa, rovers sent to Mars and sample return missions to Mars and asteroids.
The theme of understanding of the Solar System could lead to a series of missions to investigate space plasmas, such as a Solar Polar Orbiter, or a Heliopause Probe to study the area where the solar influence meets the interstellar medium. A Jupiter Probe could study the Jovian system as a mini ‘solar system’.
Mapping the birth of stars and planets would use a set of astronomical observatories, such as a Mid-Infrared Nulling Interferometer for direct detection and spectroscopy of Earth-like planets and the search for biomarkers.
A Far-Infrared Observatory will conduct imaging and spectroscopy of ‘protostars’ and ‘protoplanetary disks’, investigate cool molecular and dust clouds from which stars and planets form and resolve discrete sources in the far-infrared background.
Our understanding of the Universe could be improved by exploring the limits of physics as we know it. For example, a Fundamental Physics Explorer programme could probe the tiny deviations from the fundamental interactions that today form our standard models, and move towards to the unification of the theories of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
A Gravitational Wave Cosmic Explorer could also study the very early Universe by detecting the very first gravitational waves generated close to the Big Bang. A Large Aperture X-ray Observatory and a new Gamma-ray Observatory would study the behaviour of matter and the validity of General Relativity around objects whose physics are governed by extreme gravity and temperature conditions, such as black holes and neutron stars.
These observatories would be joined by more missions, such as an Optical/Near-infrared Wide Field Imager to provide clues to the understanding of the elusive dark energy through the study of distant supernovae. An All-sky Cosmic Microwave Background Mapper would chart the details of the early accelerated expansion of the Universe.
An Ultra-high Precision Astrometry Optical/UV Spectroscopy mission could conduct a census of terrestrial exoplanets within 326 light years, a MeV Gamma Ray Imager would study the physics of supernovae at the origin of heavy nuclei and find the true origin of antimatter, and a High-resolution UV Spectroscopy mission would investigate the warm/hot intergalactic medium and distant supernovae.
For some of the missions undertaken under the Horizon 2000 and 2000+ long-term plans, the technologies required did not exist when they were first proposed. The same is true for some of the new conceptual missions emerging in the Cosmic Vision plan.
However, Cosmic Vision is also providing a ‘roadmap’, necessary to get the required technologies in place and within reach in the next 10 or 15 years, ready for the initial missions of the new plan to be launched a decade from now.
Last update: 2 May 2005