The International Space Station will be the focus of human spaceflight activities for the next 20 years. But after the ISS, what comes next? There's a whole universe waiting out there, and Europe intends to play a major role in exploring it. That means some careful long-term planning.
ESA's new Aurora Programme aims to set out a strategy for Europe's solar system exploration over the next 30 years - which could include manned expeditions to the Moon, Mars, the asteroids and even beyond. To make these things happen, Europe will have to develop existing technologies, fill gaps in the continent's space expertise, and set realistic technological and scientific goals for its people. All this must be started well in advance of the actual application. As the ISS itself demonstrates, it takes years and much effort from many people to turn design objectives into orbiting hardware.
Right now Aurora is in the exciting blue-sky planning phase - where everything seems possible. Over the next three years or so, the Aurora team will sift through more than 300 European ideas ranging from reusable launchers to advanced space drives and broadband interplanetary communications, from meeting the needs of long-duration human spaceflight to new ways to search for life. Which of these ideas will make the transition from blueprint to machined metal? Obviously, the best ideas are those that combine long-term technological development with missions that make scientific sense now, without blowing the budget.
"Aurora's early prime task is to choose the European way through existing possibilities rather than to come up with something completely new," says Franco Ongaro who is working closely with representatives from the various ESA Directorates. "It's a unique opportunity." Science is important but it is not Aurora's sole driving force. "We need to balance our technological objectives, our science objectives and our budgets. We hope to come up with plans and missions that coordinate the efforts of national space agencies and help build up proven European competence in space engineering exploration."
Aurora will be a glittering opportunity for European aerospace companies who have too often been overshadowed by their United States counterparts. Aurora will show where Europe can take a new lead.
Here are a few of the possibilities. Remember, Aurora is still in its first, open-ended planning stage, so do not expect all of them - but watch this space.
Last update: 21 March 2003