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SPACE FLIGHT 2006 - The Year in Review

European Space Activities

Europe's efforts to reinvigorate its faltering space activities after the long decline since the mid-1990s, still anticipated in 2003, are slow to materialize, remaining at a low level 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 an EU responsibility still remained largely unresolved.

After the decline of Europe's commercial activities in space to a low in 2004 leveled off in 2005, the new EC (enhanced capability) version of the Ariane 5, designed to lift 10 tons to geostationary transfer orbit, enough for two big communications satellites at once allowed European industry a quick comeback with the successful first launch of an Ariane 5 ECA in 2005 (after its failure in 2002) as one of five flights (out of five attempts) of the Ariane 5-G (generic, 3 flights) and -ECA (2 flights) rockets (2004: 3), to which another five flights were added in 2006, bringing its program total to 30. The five heavy-lift vehicles of 2006 carried a total of 11 satellite payloads: 10 commercial comsats (Hotbird 7A, SpainSat, Satmex 6/Mexico, Thaicom 5/Thailand, JCSat-10, Syracuse 3B, DirecTV 9S/USA, Optus D1/Australia, Wildblue 1, AMC-18/Americom), and one technology development satellite (LDREX 2/Japan). Altogether, 174 flights have been successfully completed by Ariane rockets by end-2006, including 30 by the Ariane 5.

The development of the Galileo (GNSS) navigation and global positioning system by fifteen European countries engaged in space, which received top-level approval in 2005, has run into delays and disputes. Originally planned to enable Europe to be independent of the U.S. GPS system starting in 2008, the newly formed consortium has yet to overcome basic difficulties although the industry has made some moves in the right direction. 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. A major event for ESA in 2006 was the launch of German Astronaut Tomas Reiter, on contract with the Russian Space Agency, on STS-121/Discovery to the ISS as Europe's first long-duration crewmember on the space station (171 days). Also spending some time on the ISS in 2006 was the Swedish ESA-Astronaut Christer Fuglesang, flying as a crewmember on the shuttle STS-116/Discovery and participating in three spacewalks, before returning to Earth with Thomas Reiter on December 22.

France has a relatively large and active national space program, including bi-lateral (i.e., outside of ESA) activities with the USA and Russia. One European project led by France/CNES in 2006 was COROT (Convection Rotation and Planetary Transits), launched on Soyuz-2 on December 27 into a polar orbit at 896 km altitude to conduct highly precise star photometry in search of planets outside the Solar System. 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 flown in space, Leonardo and Raffaello; the third MPLM is Donatello. Italy has also developed a second ISS Node (Node-2), which was delivered to NASA in June 2003. In Germany, the low governmental interest (unlike Italy's and France's) in this field continued in 2006. Germany is the second major ESA contributor after France, but it has essentially no national space program of its own remaining. A German satellite launched in 2006 on a Russian Kosmos-3M rocket was SAR-Lupe 1, Germany's first satellite-based radar reconnaissance system, with SAR-Lupe 2 planned for 2007. When completed, SAR-Lupe will consist of five identical small satellites in a constellation in three orbital planes.

In the space science area, in 2006, besides France's COROT, there was the launch of MetOp-A, and the arrival of the planetary probe Venus Express at its target planet.


MetOp-A, Europe's first polar-orbiting meteorological satellite, was launched on October 19 on a Russian Soyuz-2 (1A), an upgrade of the venerable Soyuz launcher equipped with digital electronics and a new inertial navigation system. When MetOp-A becomes operational in 2007, its instruments will sound the atmosphere throughout its depth, gathering essential global information, day and night about the atmosphere, land and ocean surfaces. MetOp-A data will significantly improve weather forecasting e.g. by direct assimilation into numerical weather prediction models that compute forecasts ranging from a few hours to up to 10 days ahead.  The satellite represents the first in a series of three satellites to be launched over the next 14 years, forming the space segment of the EUMETSAT Polar System (EPS).

Venus Express

The 1240-kg Venus Express spacecraft, launched on November 9, 2005, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle, arrived at the planet Venus on April 11, 2006, after a 153 day cruise. A 50-minute engine burn slowed the spacecraft down for entering an orbit around the planet. The first capture orbit was highly elongated and lasted nine days. Several maneuvers over the period April 15 - May 6 then lowered the spacecraft into its operational orbit: a 24-hour elliptical, quasi-polar path. At its closest, Venus Express reaches an altitude of 250 km and at its furthest, it is 60,000 km away from the planet. Its science objectives are to study the atmosphere, plasma environment, and the surface of Venus in great detail. Venus Express is the first mission to visit Venus since NASA's 1989-1994 Magellan mission, but unlike the Magellan probe, Venus Express is not capable of imaging the surface of Venus with high spatial resolution through cloud-penetrating imaging radar. Instead, it is equipped with several instruments designed to study Venus in new ways. Venus Express was built mostly with spare parts and designs from the European Mars Express and Rosetta missions. Its instruments are a plasma analyzer (ASPERA-4/Analyzer of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms), a magnetometer (MAG), three spectrometers (PFS/Planetary Fourier Spectrometer; SPICAV/Spectroscopy for Investigation of Characteristics of the Atmosphere of Venus; and VIRTIS/Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer), a radio sounder (VeRa/Venus Radio), and a digital camera VMC/Venus Monitoring Camera).


ESA's comet intercept mission Rosetta, initially intended for a rendezvous with Comet 46 P/Wirtanen but postponed, was launched on an Ariane 5 on March 2, 2004 to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The probe will rendezvous with the comet in 2014 and release a landing craft named Philae. It is hoped that on its 10-year journey the spacecraft will also pass by two asteroids, Steins and Lutetia. Along its roundabout route, Rosetta will enter the Asteroid Belt twice and gain velocity from gravitational kicks provided by close flybys of two planets: After encountering Earth a year after launch in 2005, the spacecraft in 2006 headed for Mars for a fly-by of the Red Planet in February 2007, then returns to Earth twice, in November 2007 and November 2009, for its second and third fly-bys of our planet. On arrival at 67P in 2014, Rosetta will enter orbit around the comet and stay with it on its journey in toward the Sun, to study the origin of comets, the relationship between cometary and interstellar material and its implications with regard to the origin of the Solar System.


In 2006 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 every 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, Germany and 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 invaluable information for scientists and operational users for global monitoring and forecasting to protect the planet.


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 2006 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 French Space Agency CNES, and developed with the participation of Sweden and Belgium.


ESA's INTEGRAL (International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory), a cooperative project with Russia and USA, continued successful operations in 2005. Launched on October 17, 2002, on a Russian Proton rocket into a 72-hour orbit with 51.6 deg inclination, 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. In 2006, INTEGRAL operations continued smoothly, with the spacecraft, instruments and ground segment performing nominally. The agreement with NASA for the use of the Goldstone Deep Space Network (DSN) station was extended for one year until December 2006. Its instruments have produced the first all-sky map of the 511 keV line emission produced when electrons and their anti-matter equivalents, positrons, collide and annihilate. One intriguing possibility is that the emission is produced by the annihilation or decay of an exotic form of dark matter, which was actually discovered in 2006. The nature of the sources responsible for the anti-matter is clearly one of the key areas for further investigation by INTEGRAL over the coming years. In 2006, INTEGRAL detected surprisingly powerful X-ray and gamma ray emission from a special class of neutron star. This discovery makes them the magnetically most active bodies in the Universe. The INTEGRAL imager (IBIS) has also been used to detect a new persistent soft gamma-ray source, IGR J18135-1751, which is coincident with one of several sources of extreme energy in the inner part of the Galaxy. Such gamma rays are emitted by short-lived radioactive isotopes that occur in supernovae and their remnants.


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). In 2006, XMM-Newton continued to probe into the unknown. After six years of operations, its research has resulted in more than 1000 scientific paper in top-class scientific journals, corresponding to an equivalent number of results. Scientific results based on XMM-Newton data are now being published at a steady rate of almost 300 papers per year, comparable to the famous Hubble Telescope. XMM-Newton has already unveiled many stars' secrets. Among its discoveries, it characterized for the first time X-ray spectra and light curves of some classes of proto-stars (stars being born) and provided an unprecedented insight into the X-ray variability of the corona of stars similar to our Sun. With its capability to respond as quickly as five hours to target-of-opportunity requests for observing elusive gamma-ray bursts, this space observatory detected for the first time an X-ray halo around the bursts, where the halo appeared as concentric ring-like structures centered on the burst location. XMM-Newton is shedding new light on supernovae remnants, as well as on neutron stars. On the latter, an exciting discovery was that of a bow shock aligned with the supersonic motion of a neutron star (called 'Geminga'), and the detection of hot spots indicating that the configuration of neutron stars magnetic field and surface temperatures are much more complex than previously thought.  In 2006, XMM and Chandra observations uncovered evidence that helps to confirm the identity of the remains of one of the earliest stellar explosions recorded by humans,- the remnant of the supernova RCW86 which appears to have been observed by Chinese (and possibly Roman) astronomers in 185 AD. During their XMM Cluster Survey in 2006 (XCS), astronomers also discovered the most distant galaxy cluster ever found, at a distance of 10 billion light-years from Earth. Since there appear to be old galaxies in the cluster, scientists are seeing their understanding challenged how such a well developed massive cluster can exist at a relatively early era in the Universe.


On September 3, 2006, after final maneuvers on June 19 and September 1, Smart-1 (Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology 1), Europe's first lunar spacecraft, ended its highly successful mission after almost two years in orbit around the Moon by crashing itself on the lunar surface in an area called the Lake of Excellence. The 370-kg (816 lbs) spacecraft was launched on September 27, 2003, with two commercial communications satellites (Insat 3E, e-Bird) on an Ariane 5G. Built by Swedish Space Corp., it was 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), covered a distance of 100 million km, a long spiraling journey on only 60 liters of fuel that 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 fired repeatedly to lower the spacecraft into an operational orbit of 3000 x 300 km. This was achieved by 13 January 2005, heralding the begin of its science program in March 2005, using spectrometers for X-rays and near infrared as well as a camera for color imaging. Thanks to Smart-1, scientists now have the best resolution surface images ever from lunar orbit, as well as a better knowledge of the Moon's minerals. For the first time from orbit, they have detected calcium and magnesium using an X-ray instrument. In addition, the spacecraft found an area near the north pole where the Sun always shines, even in winter.

Mars Express

Mars Express was 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 went on during 2004, 2005 and 2006. Its instruments have shown that many of the upper layers of Mars contain water ice. They detected clay-like minerals that form during long-term exposure to water, but only in the oldest regions of Mars. That suggested water flowed during the first few hundred million years of the planet's history only. When these bodies of water were lost, water then occasionally burst from inside the planet but quickly evaporated, and it still may be happening in places. Residual water ice, in form of a frozen lake, was discovered in the open Vastitas Borealis Crater. 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).