Space science is playing a prominent role in Europe’s space programme. It has been the core of European co-operation and success in space since the early 1960s.
As ESA turns thirty years old, it continues a tradition of innovative thinking and long-term perspectives that form the basis for ESA's scientific programme.
The Horizon 2000 long-term plan for space science, formulated 20 years ago (1984), is almost completed. Its successor, Horizon 2000+, approved ten years ago, comes now to fruition with a wealth of scientific satellites and space telescopes in orbit producing great results.
In the first years of this new millennium, ESA is building its future in space science based on a ‘Cosmic Vision’. This is a way of looking ahead, building on a solid past, and working today to overcome the scientific, intellectual and technological challenges of tomorrow.
More than a philosophy
When our society stops looking out at the Universe we inhabit, when we stop asking questions about it - then our society is ready to decay.
ESA’s long-term scientific programme is based on a vision, built on strong pragmatism and consolidated ability. ‘Cosmic Vision’ is the European starting point for quests into the advancement in space science in a contemporary context.
To ultimately explore our Universe, its mysteries and laws, and advance our understanding of nature, this vision has to capitalise on:
- the current scientific challenges;
- the prevailing priorities in space research;
- the available know-how, resources and technological investment towards maximum scientific return;
- the maintenance of European industrial and technological competitiveness; and
- the consolidation of ESA’s ability in worldwide space science.
Cosmic Vision in context: today’s achievements
The Sun/Earth connection is being explored by the SOHO mission in combination with the Cluster quartet, recently joined by the Chinese Double Star duet, while their ‘grandfather’ Ulysses, launched in 1991, is still operational in orbit above the Sun’s poles.
Large astronomical observatories, from the Hubble Space Telescope to XMM-Newton and Integral, are providing breathtaking images and mind-boggling results, confirming Europe’s capability in spectroscopy (the science of ‘finger-printing’ celestial bodies). Planetary science is also proving to be a big success story for Europe, with SMART-1 sent to the Moon, Mars Express exploring the Red Planet and Huygens landing on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Now Rosetta is on its own way to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Venus Express is now in orbit around Venus and BepiColombo, the joint ESA/Japanese project for a mission to Mercury, is about to start.
Over the next decade, ESA’s Science programme is due to open windows into new realms of astronomy and astrophysics. Herschel will study the cold Universe, Planck will look for echoes of the ‘Big Bang’ and Gaia will count and track over a 1000 million stars in the Milky Way and beyond.
The James Webb Space Telescope, a NASA observatory with a major ESA involvement, will explore the very first stars and galaxies, and Solar Orbiter will venture closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft.
Missions such as LISA will track for the first time the elusive ‘gravity waves’ predicted by General Relativity, thus giving birth to a new kind of astronomy from space. This no longer looks at the light radiated by stars in the electromagnetic spectrum but detects the tiny ripples of space-time due to the fundamental force of gravity.