July 22, 2010

ESA Looking For Next Major Space Mission

Ideas for Europe's next space mission will come from scientists who will be asked beginning next week to put their minds in gear and come up with a new plan.

The European Space Agency will fund the winning proposal to the tune of several hundred million euros/dollars.

The winning proposal would be set for a launch date sometime between 2020 to 2022. ESA says the bids must address fundamental, but fairly broad, questions about the Universe and our place within it.

"The simplest way to describe it is this: how did our Universe evolve to us; how did we get from the Big Bang to today? And then the other big idea is, how unique is our planet and in particular our position on it; is there life elsewhere?" Professor David Southwood, ESA's science director, told BBC News.

Southwood spoke at this year's Farnborough International Air Show.

The ESA plans many of its future missions under a program called Cosmic Vision.

The ESA is already in the late stages of selecting two "Ëœmedium class' ventures to launch in 2017/2018. Three concepts are vying for just two launch spots -- a mission to study the "dark universe"; a sophisticated telescope to hunt for planets; and a satellite to study the Sun up close and personal.

Whichever of these three fails to make the final selection will fall back into the new call, and vie for a future mission. Several other ideas that also fell during earlier selections will get re-submission in some form to the next opportunity.

ESA also has a "Ëœlarge class' competition going. The launch window for the more expensive -- and more complex -- mission is set for 2020. To maintain ESA's momentum, Prof Southwood is hoping the new medium class opportunity will be ready this year as well.

"We want something limbered up and ready to go," Southwood explained. "It's making sure we have a 'cab rank' and if one of the cabs drops out for a moment, there's another that can drive around and pick up."

Scientists have already begun working on proposals and plans to submit, even before the formal call has gone out.

Ideas debated have included missions to comets and outer planets, particle acceleration at the Sun, and even efforts to study Earth's auroras.

"We're all trying to work out the sorts of missions that are likely to have the best chance of winning, and ones the UK can play prominent roles in," said Dr Lucie Green from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

A colleague, Dr Andrew Coates, is promoting a mission called FAME-P (Fast Auroral Mars Explorer).

This is a multi-purpose mission to Mars that would image auroras as well as study surface weather and other atmospheric phenomena. The mission would also seek for a surface element, said Dr. Coates. "We would have penetrators going down to the surface of Mars. For years, people have wanted to do seismological measurements at Mars; the idea of a network of seismometers has been around for a long time."

Proposals for the "M3" call will need to be submitted in December. A process of down-selection will occur with the eventual winner likely to be announced in 2012.

ESA has cost-capped its funding of medium class missions at 600 million US dollars. Member states provide instruments for the mission spacecraft from their own national space budgets.


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