Text Size

SPACE FLIGHT 2004 - European Space Activities

Europe's efforts to reinvigorate its faltering space activities after the long decline since the mid-1990s, in 2003 still anticipated, in reality took a considerable step back in 2004, compared to astronautics activities of NASA, DOD, Russia and China. Ongoing efforts by the European Union (EU) on an emerging new European space strategy for ESA (European Space Agency) to achieve an autonomous Europe in space under Europe's new constitution that makes Space and Defense a EU responsibility still remained unresolved. After the year 2003 did not bring the much-needed breakthrough of Europe's commercial space industry in its flagging attempts at recovery, given particular emphasis by the last flight of Arianespace's Ariane 4 workhorse on February 15, 2003, the year 2004 continued the decline of Europe’s commercial activities in space. As in the previous year 2003, the heavy-lift Ariane 5G (generic) was launched only three times (2002: 4x), bringing its total to 20. After the December 2002 failure of the new EC version of the Ariane 5, designed to lift 10 tons to geostationary transfer orbit, enough for two big communications satellites at once, European industry quickly developed an Ariane 5 recovery plan, and on June 20, 2003 Arianespace concluded a preliminary contract with European aerospace conglomerate EADS Space Transportation for a batch of 30 Ariane 5 launchers, which was signed in May 2004.

In 2004, the most significant space undertaking for the fifteen European countries engaged in space continued to be the development of the Galileo navigation and global positioning system, which received top-level approval. Starting in 2008, it will enable Europe to be independent of the U.S. GPS system, an area where major strategic and commercial stakes are at play. In its final configuration, Galileo (not to be confused with NASA's Jupiter probe) will consist of a constellation of 30 small satellites weighing 700 kg each (27 operational, 3 backup), placed in medium orbit (24,000 km) above Earth, with orbit inclination 55 degrees. It will be independent of, but compatible with the GPS system, i.e., if USA and Europe agree on cooperation at some future date, interoperability would be possible.

In the human space flight area, while the ISS remains ESA's biggest single ongoing program and its only engagement in Human Space Flight, European ISS share (totaling 8.6 percent) remains unchanged due to top-level agreement signed by previous governments of the participating nations. France has a relatively large and active national space program, including bi-lateral (i.e., outside of ESA) activities with the USA and Russia. In Italy, the Italian Space Agency ASI, created in 1988, participates in the ISS program through ESA but also had entered a protocol with NASA for the delivery of three multipurpose logistics modules (MPLM) for the ISS. Two MPLMs have already been delivered, Leonardo and Raffaello, and both flew in 2001. The third MPLM is Donatello, and Italy has also developed a second ISS Node, which was delivered to NASA in June 2003. In Germany, the lack of interest of its government (unlike Italy's and France's) in this field continued in 2004. Germany is the second major ESA contributor after France, but it has essentially no national space program remaining.

In the space science area, there were only one new European launch in 2004, the international comet mission Rosetta.

Rosetta.The mission was approved in November 1993 by ESA's Science Program Committee as the Planetary Cornerstone Mission in ESA's long-term space science program. The mission goal was initially set for a rendezvous with comet 46 P/Wirtanen. After postponement of the initial launch a new target was set,- Comet 67 P/Churyumov- Gerasimenko. The launch of Rosetta on an Ariane 5 occurred on March 2. After its rendezvous with the comet in 2014, Rosetta will release a landing craft named Philae. It is hoped that on its 10 year journey to the comet, the spacecraft will pass by at least one asteroid.

Envisat.In 2004, ESA's operational environmental satellite Envisat, the largest Earth Observation spacecraft ever built, continued its observations after its launch on March 1, 2002, on the 11th Ariane 5. The 18,100 lbs (8200 kg) satellite circles Earth in a polar orbit at 800 km altitude, completing a revolution of Earth ever 100 minutes. Because of its polar sun-synchronous orbit, it flies over and examines the same region of the Earth every 35 days under identical conditions of lighting. The 25 m long and 10 m wide satellite, about the size of a bus, is equipped with ten advanced instruments (seven from ESA, the others from France, Great Britain and Germany/Netherlands) including an Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR), a Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS), an Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer (AATSR), a Radio Altimeter (RA-2), a Global Ozone Monitoring by Occultation of Stars (GOMOS) instrument, a Michelson Interferometer for Passive Atmosphere Sounding (MIPAS) and a Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Cartography (SCIAMACHY). It is scanning the Earth similar to the way vertical slices are peeled off an orange as it is turned in one's hand. This enables Envisat to continuously scrutinize the Earth's surface (land, oceans, ice caps) and atmosphere, gathering a huge volume of information to survey and protect the planet. On September 6-10, ESA held the 2004 ENVISAT & ERS Symposium in Salzburg/Austria, open to all interested parties from scientists to operational users and covering both ENVISAT and ERS missions.

SPOT 5.Launched on May 4, 2002, by the 112th Ariane 4 from Kourou (French Guiana), the fifth imaging satellite of the commercial Spot Image Company (CNES-38.5%, EADS-35.66%, Alcatel-5.12%, IGN-7.81%), in 2004 continued operations in its polar sun-synchronous orbit of 813 km altitude. Unique features of the SPOT system are high resolution, stereo imaging and revisit capability. The SPOT satellite Earth Observation System was designed by the CNES, the French Space Agency, and developed with the participation of Sweden and Belgium.

INTEGRAL.ESA's INTEGRAL (International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory), a cooperative project with Russia and USA, continued successful operations in 2003. Launched on October 17, 2002, on a Russian Proton rocket into a 72-hour orbit with an inclination of 51.6 deg, a perigee height of 9,000 km and an apogee height of 155,000 km, the sensitive gamma-ray observatory provides new insights into the most violent and exotic objects of the Universe, such as black holes, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei and supernovae. Among else, INTEGRAL in 2003 has resolved the long-standing question as to the nature of the diffuse glow of soft gamma rays seen from the central region of our Galaxy. Its observations have shown that most of the emission is produced by individual point sources. In 2004, a gamma-ray burst detected by INTEGRAL on 3 December 2003 was thoroughly studied for months by an armada of space and ground-based observatories, and astronomers then concluded that this event, called GRB 031203, was the closest cosmic gamma-ray burst on record, but also the faintest, which also suggests that an entire population of sub-energetic gamma-ray bursts has so far gone unnoticed.

XMM-Newton.Europe's XMM (X-ray Multi Mirror)-Newton observatory, launched on December 10, 1999, on an Ariane 5, is the largest European science research satellite ever built. Operating in an orbit of 113,946 x 7000 km (71,216 x 4375 miles) inclined at 40 degrees to the equator, the telescope has a length of nearly 11 m (36 ft.), with a mass of almost 4 metric tons (8,800 lbs). Using its three X-ray detecting instruments, a photon imaging camera, reflection grating spectrometer, and optical telescope, in 2002, it obtained the first reliable measurement ever of the mass-to-radius ratio of a neutron star (EXO 0748-676). These objects are believed to be among the densest in the Universe. The investigation, led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), indicated that the neutron star probably contains normal matter and not the exotic plasma of dissolved matter that scientists hypothesized might occur if the great gravitational forces present cause elementary particles like protons, neutrons and electrons to fuse. After numerous other significant discoveries, in November 2003 an extension of the XMM-Newton mission up to March 31, 2008, was unanimously approved by the Science Program Committee, with funding secured up to March 2006 and a provisional budget for an additional two years. By December 10, 2004, five years after the launch of XMM-Newton, the observatory had achieved oversubscription factors in observing time of seven or more, performed about 3800 scientific observations and spawned about 700 publications in the refereed literature, with 290 observations published.

Smart-1.Smart-1 (Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology 1) is Europe’s first lunar spacecraft. The 370-kg (816 lbs) spacecraft was launched on September 27 with two commercial communications satellites (Insat 3E, e-Bird) on an Ariane 5G. Built by Swedish Space Corp., it is intended to demonstrate new technologies for future missions, in this case the use of solar-electric propulsion as the primary power source for its ion engine, fueled by xenon gas. The single engine was fired for the first time on September 30, 2003. The transfer to the Moon, propelled by intermittent ion thruster firings and celestial mechanics (Moon “resonances” and swing-bys), took 18 months. On November 15, 2004, the spacecraft encountered its first perilune, after 332 orbits around the Earth. The ion drive was fired on that day to brake the spacecraft into lunar orbit, after which, over several months, its engine was to be fired repeatedly to lower the spacecraft into an operational orbit of 3000 x 300 km. This should be achieved by 13 January 2005, heralding the begin of its science program, executed with spectrometers for X-rays and near infrared as well as a camera for color imaging.

Mars Express. Mars Express is Europe’s entry into the ongoing and slowly expanding robotic exploration of the Red Planet from Earth as precursors to later missions by human explorers. The probe was launched on June 2, 2003, from the Baikonur launch site by a Russian Soyuz/Fregat rocket. After a six-month journey, it arrived at Mars in December. Six days before arrival, Mars Express ejected the Beagle 2 lander, which was to have made its own way to the correct landing site on the surface but was lost, failing to make contact with orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based radio telescopes. The Mars Express orbiter successfully entered Martian orbit on December 25, first maneuvering into a highly elliptical capture orbit, from which it moved into its operational near polar orbit later in January 2004. Highly successful operations and stunning close-up imagery of the Mars surface continued during 2004. On February 6, while Mars Express was flying over the area that NASA’s Mars exploration rover Spirit was examining, the orbiter transferred commands from Earth to the rover and relayed data from the rover back to Earth,- a successful pioneering demonstration of communications between ESA’s orbiter and NASA’s rover and the first working international communications network around another planet. Mars Express continues to remotely explore the Red Planet with a sophisticated instrument package comprising the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC); Energetic Neutral Atoms Analyzer (ASPERA); Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS); Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer (OMEGA); Sub-Surface Sounding Radar Altimeter (MARSIS); Mars Radio Science Experiment (MaRS); and the Ultraviolet and Infrared Atmospheric Spectrometer (SPICAM).