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SPACE FLIGHT 2007 - The Year in Review

European Space Activities

Europe's efforts to reinvigorate its faltering space activities after the long decline since the mid-1990s 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, in 2007 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 and six in 2007, bringing its program total to 36.  The six heavy-lift vehicles of 2007 carried a total of 12 satellite payloads, all of them commercial comsats (Skynet-5A and -5B, Insat-4B, Astra-1L, Galaxy-17, Spaceway-3, Bsat-3a, Intelsat-11, Optus-D2, StarOne-C1, Rascom QAF-1, and Horizons-2).  Altogether, 180 flights have been successfully completed by Ariane rockets by end-2007, including 36 by the Ariane 5.

The development of the Galileo (GNSS) navigation and global positioning system by fifteen European countries engaged in space, that 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 2007was the launch of Italian Astronaut Paolo Nespoli in October, accompanying the Italian-built Node-2 “Harmony” on STS-120/Discovery to the ISS.

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 2007, the France/CNES-led project ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) named “Jules Verne”, was readied for its inaugural flight to the ISS in 2008.   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 also developed the second ISS Node (Node-2), which docked to the ISS in October 2007.  In addition, Node-3, developed at Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, is scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2010, containing the most advanced life support systems ever flown in space, an atmosphere revitalization system and other systems required to support a station crew of six.   In Germany, the low governmental interest (unlike Italy's and France's) in this field continued in 2007.  Germany is the second major ESA contributor after France but has essentially no national space program of its own remaining.  Two more satellite-based radar reconnaissance systems were launched for Germany on Russian Kosmos-3M rockets,- SAR-Lupe 2 (July 2) and SAR-Lupe 3 (November 1).  When completed, SAR-Lupe will consist of five identical small satellites in a constellation in three orbital planes.  A third German radar satellite, TerraSAR-X, was launched on a Russian Dnepr-1 (a converted R-36M missile) on June 15 for high-resolution imaging of the entire earth surface using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology, the first satellite implemented in a public/private partnership in Germany (cost shared by EADS Astrium GmbH and the DLR German Aerospace Center).  Also in Germany in 2007, the ESA Columbus orbital laboratory, destined for the ISS in 2008, entered final checkout stages, with its Control Center (COL-CC) in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich conducting operational tests with the ISS to verify its readiness.

Venus Express

In 2007, the 2734 lbs (1240 kg) Venus Express spacecraft, launched on November 9, 2005, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle, continued making the most detailed study of the planet’s thick and complex atmosphere to date. The latest findings by the probe, which arrived at the planet on April 11, 2006 after a 153 day cruise, highlighted the features that make Venus unique in the Solar System and provide fresh clues as to how the planet is - despite everything - a more Earth-like planetary neighbor than one could have imagined.  Permanently covered in clouds, Venus has been a mystery for centuries.  Although it is the planet nearest to Earth, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to study because of its curtain of clouds that obscures our view of its surface. 400°C and the surface pressure is a hundred times that on Earth.  The key to understanding Venus lies in its atmosphere, which Venus Express is studying.  It is much thicker than Earth’s and intercepts most of the Sun’s energy before it can reach the surface.  A second set of results from the probe concerns both the atmosphere’s composition and its chemistry.  Venus Express has taken compositional profiles of the atmosphere around the planet, and unambiguously confirmed the presence of lightning which can have a strong effect on the composition of the atmosphere itself.  A third set of results is about the processes by which the atmosphere of Venus is escaping into space.  This is driven by the solar wind – a stream of electrically charged particles given out by the Sun.  As the solar particles collide with electrically charged particles near Venus, they energise the gases, stripping them forever from the planet.  Venus Express has provided giant leaps in the understanding of all these phenomena, and found how Venus loses water due its interaction with the solar wind.  New measurements of heavy water in the atmosphere are also providing new clues on the history of water on the planet and its overall climate evolution.


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 instead.  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 returned to Earth in November 2007 and will do so a second time in November 2009, for its second and third fly-bys of our planet.  During most of 2007, Rosetta was in “hibernation mode”, and no activities were conducted until an active payload checkout, the sixth, at end-September in preparation for the Earth Swing-by 2 on November 13.  After the Swing-by, operations focused on science data downlink, spacecraft reconfiguration and check-out activities and on a trajectory correction maneuver.  Rosetta then continued on its 4th orbit around the Sun as part of its interplanetary journey. The spacecraft distance from the Sun is now increasing to reach a maximum of ca. 2.26 AU in December 2008.  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 2007, 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 2007 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.  Starting in 2010, the SPOT satellites will be replaced by the PLEIADES program, constellation of smaller, more agile satellites offering an improved spatial resolution of up to 0.7 metres.


ESA's INTEGRAL (International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory), a cooperative project with Russia and USA, continued successful operations in 2007.  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 2007, INTEGRAL operations continued smoothly, with the spacecraft, instruments and ground segment performing nominally.  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.  With its sensitive detectors, INTEGRAL has accurately measured the hard Cosmic X-ray Background (CXB), responsible for creating the diffuse background glow spread throughout the universe, and it has confirmed that systems containing white dwarves contribute significantly to the galactic hard X-ray diffuse emission.   The gamma-ray observatory has a found a rare class of anomalous X-ray pulsars, with magnetic fields a thousand million times stronger than the strongest steady magnetic field achievable in a laboratory on Earth, and has found massive stars by looking for their radioactive traces - radioactive decay gamma-ray lines from iron have been observed with the most significant detection to date, forcing re-evaluation of existing theoretical models.  INTEGRAL has also discovered a new class of X-ray binary stars called super-giant fast transients - X-ray binary systems containing super giant stars.  INTEGRAL and other high-energy satellites have discovered that these transient systems are not as rare in the galaxy as initially thought.  Although not designed for the purpose, INTEGRAL has also proved to be a great gamma-ray-burst ‘watchdog’, providing instantaneous, accurate positions of gamma ray bursts to other facilities within minutes or even seconds.  In collaboration with NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, INTEGRAL has also detected what appears to be the fastest spinning neutron star yet.  In November 2007, in recognition of its superb scientific output, the mission operations of Europe’s flagship gamma-ray observatory INTEGRAL were extended until December 31, 2012.


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, it has obtained the first reliable measurement ever of the mass-to-radius ratio of a neutron star (EXO 0748-676).  In 2007,

 XMM-Newton continued to probe into the unknown.  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.

XMM-Newton has made breakthrough observations of a wide variety of compact objects, such as the first detection of an intermediate-mass black hole in globular cluster NGC 4472.  This has direct implications for the formation and evolution theories of globular clusters in general.  Thanks to its sensitivity at high energies, XMM-Newton has made the first and only direct probing of the central regions near a black hole, by sampling the presence of iron and the variability of its spectral fingerprints. The satellite’s observations have also been fundamental in helping understand the physics of heavy sub-atomic matter (‘baryonic’) in clusters of galaxies and on studying the dark matter component in clusters.  XMM-Newton has given the first strong indication that very faint active galactic nuclei (AGN) are similar to the 'normal' AGN population, and measured for the first time the size of the emission region of an AGN.  Other major results include the progress in understanding the link between X-ray emission and luminosity of stars, as well as the relation between the X-ray emission and processes such as star accretion or collisions.  The satellite has discovered the remnants of a new class of supernovae within the so-called ‘Ia type’, which are used as standard reference, or ‘candles’, to determine stellar luminosity.  XMM-Newton has also revealed X-ray emission in the Martian exosphere - the first definite detection of X-ray emission induced by exchange of electrical charges from the exosphere of another planet.  Like INTEGRAL, in November 2007 the mission operations of XMM-Newton were extended until 31 December 2012 in recognition of its superb scientific output,

Mars Express

In 2007, Mars Express continued its operations in orbit around the Red Planet.  Mars Express, 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, 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 disappeared and was declared lost.  The Mars Express orbiter successfully entered Martian orbit on December 25.  Highly successful operations and stunning close-up imagery of the Mars surface went on during 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.  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.  After the 2007 eclipse (shadowed period) season ended on August 31, preparations were made for the 2008 eclipse seasons, with long eclipses during aphelion, started in October.  On October 2, Mars Express successfully performed a close flyby of the moon Phobos to within ~140 km (87.5 mi.) of the moon.  During the flyby a number of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) observations were unfortunately lost due to an overload of the system.  The impact of this is relatively small as HRSC already has acquired a lot of detailed Phobos data during past observations.  The data from the Sub-Surface Sounding Radar Altimeter (MARSIS) for this close flyby, which are unique, were being analyzed.  Starting November 18 and ending 19 December 19, five maneuvers were executed to bring the spacecraft from its previous 11:3 resonance orbit to its new 18:5 resonance orbit.  This change was necessary to guarantee a proper day-time/night-time distribution for future Mars Express observations.  Mars Express continues to remotely explore the Red Planet with a sophisticated instrument package comprising the HRSC; Energetic Neutral Atoms Analyzer (ASPERA); Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS); Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer (OMEGA); MARSIS; Mars Radio Science Experiment (MaRS); and the Ultraviolet and Infrared Atmospheric Spectrometer (SPICAM).