Tag Archives: european space agency

The European Space Agency is hiring for the first time in 11 years

Do you want to explore the great, dark expanses of the Universe? Ever wondered what it’s like sleeping in zero gravity? Feel like you have to get out of Earth before things get worse? Can’t blame you — but ESA can help you.

The Main Control Room at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany. Image credits European Space Agency.

The European Space Agency has issued a new call for astronaut recruits, for the first time in a decade. Applications will start being accepted on March 31st, and everyone is encouraged to apply — ESA seeks to “expand gender diversity in our ranks”.


“To go farther than we ever have before, we need to look wider than we ever have before,” said ESA director general Jan Wörner in a statement declaring the new campaign.

“This recruitment process is the first step and I look forward to watching the agency develop across all areas of space exploration and innovation, with our international partners, in the years to come.”

David Parker, the ESA director of human and robotic exploration, says that the agency’s drive for diversity should focus not only on “origin, age, background or gender of our astronauts, but also perhaps physical disabilities”, which is definitely a fresh take on what we consider astronaut material. However, given the rising interest in space exploration, from both public and government agents, having such individuals as part of the crew will undoubtedly help us discover and develop ways of overcoming the issues that will affect them uniquely in space.

Parker adds that due to this reason, he will also be launching the Parastronaut Feasibility Project — “an innovation whose time has come” — alongside the recruitment program.

After the window for applications closes (it will be running from March 31 to May 28), candidates will contend with a six-stage selection process, which will end by October 2022. As far as requirements go, applicants must be nationals of an ESA member state aged 27 to 37, be between 153 to 190 cm (5 to 6.3 ft) tall, and be able to speak and write in English. You’ll also need a university degree in natural sciences, engineering, or medicine (or an equivalent), and you’ll be at an advantage if you have at least three years of professional experience in these or a related field.

The ESA and NASA signed an agreement in October to work together in the future to develop sustainable lunar exploration. Crews from both agencies will collaborate on the Artemis Gateway lunar outpost, meant to serve as a first stop for astronauts traveling from Earth to the lunar surface. If you’re one of the people who manage to finish ESA’s recruitment drive, it’s very likely you’re probably going to work on that project.

Applications should go here — good luck!

European Space Agency scales down missions amid coronavirus outbreak

Having already disrupted operations at NASA, the coronavirus outbreak was set to affect the agenda of the European Space Agency (ESA) as well, which has now suspended four upcoming Solar System science missions due to a further reduction of on-site personnel.

Credit: ESA

Most employees at ESA have already been working from home during the past few weeks as a preventive measure. Nevertheless, the agency has now decided to increase restrictions as an employee tested positive for COVID-19 at its mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

As a result, the instruments and data collection on some space probes are being temporarily stopped. This includes the Cluster mission, which uses four probes to investigate Earth’s magnetic environment, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express, which investigate the red planet, and the Solar Orbiter mission.

“Our priority is the health of our workforce and we will, therefore, reduce activity on some of our scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft, which currently require the highest number of personnel on-site,” ESA’s director of operations, Rolf Densing, said in a statement.

The four missions will now enter a so-called hibernation mode, an option frequently used that allows spacecraft to function autonomously without any assistance from Earth. They can remain in this state for several months but doing so will have a “negligible impact” on the missions, according to Densing.

The European Space Agency had recently postponed the launch of its joint Mars rover mission with Russia’s Roscosmos until 2022, in part due to travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Meanwhile, NASA also delayed several of its upcoming missions and closed down some of its facilities.

“It was a difficult decision, but the right one to take. Our greatest responsibility is the safety of people, and I know all of us in the science community understand why this is necessary,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science. “This is a prudent step to ensure that Europe’s world-class science missions are safe.”

ESA’s temporary reduction in personnel on-site will also allow it to concentrate on maintaining spacecraft safety for all other missions involved, in particular, the Mercury explorer BepiColombo, which is on its way to the innermost planet in the Solar System and will require some on-site support around its scheduled Earth flyby on April 10.

The challenging maneuver, which will use Earth’s gravity to adjust BepiColombo’s trajectory as it cruises towards Mercury, will be performed by a very small number of engineers and in full respect of social distancing and other health and hygiene measures required by the current situation.

European Space Agency makes all its pictures and videos free to share and use

The doors to the European Space Agency (ESA) have been wide opened: everything they’ve ever released is now open access.

An iconic image recently released by the ESA. Mars as seen by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera (2007). Credit: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA, 2007, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

We knew something was up because, for the past few weeks, ESA has been uploading more and more of its archive to the open access site. Now, the trove of images and videos has adopted the Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 Intergovernmental Organisation. This means that you can use whatever you want, share it and adapt it as you wish for all purposes — even commercially — while crediting ESA as the author.

“This evolution in opening access to ESA’s images, information and knowledge is an important element of our goal to inform, innovate, interact and inspire in the Space 4.0 landscape,” said Jan Woerner, ESA Director General. “It logically follows the free and open data policies we have already established and accounts for the increasing interest of the general public, giving more insight to the taxpayers in the member states who fund the Agency,” he added.

But this isn’t just about images and videos, their recent releases under open access policies also include data which can be used by scientists, professionals, and even students. Among many other things, you can now freely access:

  • Images and data from Earth observation missions (Envisat, Earth Explorer, European Remote Sensing missions, Copernicus; example here).
  • ESA/Hubble images and videos
  • The entire ESA Planetary Science Archive Data (PSA). The PSA is the central European repository for all scientific and engineering data returned by ESA’s planetary missions. You can see pretty much everything ESA has ever done: ExoMars 2016, Giotto, Huygens, Mars Express, Rosetta, SMART-1, Venus Express, and many more.
  • Sounds from Space: ESA’s official SoundCloud channel hosts a multitude of sounds and so-called sonifications from Space, including the famous ‘singing comet’, a track that has been reused and remixed thousands of times by composers and music makers worldwide.
  • 3D Models of a comet.

It’s a great step the ESA has taken, one which follows NASA’s similar decision. Yes, everything that NASA has is also open access — and this truly is tremendous. Now more than ever, we need access to information and data, and now more than ever NASA and the ESA have more data on their hands than they can analyze. By making it available for everyone they are not only helping researchers, students, and the media, they are also helping advance science. The tendency to favor open-access data is something we applaud and which can lead to important discoveries. The trove of data is now open for everyone to access — congrats, ESA!

European Space Agency gets 9.5% budget increase in 2017

It’s good news for space exploration: the European Union decided to increase the budget of its space agency. However, most of this extra money won’t go into “boldly going where no man has gone before” but will rather be invested into navigation, technology support and space situational awareness.

Main Control Room / Mission Control Room of ESA at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. Image credits: ESA.

NASA’s budget woes are a secret to no one, although the space agency did secure an impressive budget in 2016 — over $19 billion. But NASA isn’t the only space agency out there. Five other government space agencies have full launch capabilities and are all conducting valuable research: the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Although none of these can rival NASA in resources, Roscosmos and the ESA still get significant funding and have consistent accomplishments.

The ESA money basically comes from the European Union. There were some concerns regarding Britain’s proposed exit of the European Union, but ESA Director-General Jan Woerner stressed that Brexit will have little or no effect on Britain’s participation in the ESA.

Much of the funding will be dedicated to managing Galileo and the Copernicus Earth observation network, for which new satellites are scheduled to launch in the coming months. Copernicus is one of the most ambitious Earth observation programmes to date. Its goal is to provide “accurate, timely and easily accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure civil security.” With the Trump administration being very vocal against such programs, Europe’s role becomes even more important and Copernicus might bring some much needed data in a world struggling to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

Another notable element in ESA’s budget is the extra 400 million euros  ($430 million) injected into the Euro-Russian ExoMars exploration program which strives to find clear evidence of life on Mars. The mission will search for biosignatures of Martian life, past or present, employing several spacecraft elements to be sent to Mars on two launches, with a launch scheduled for 2020.

Here are just a few of the ESA’s most impressive accomplishments (or plans) from 2016:

European Space Agency releases map of continent’s urban footprint

Just a few days ago, the European Space Agency revealed this enthralling map which highlights Europe’s urban agglomerations. They didn’t offer too many details about it, just offering some technical specs:

“The urban footprint extracted from the Global Urban Footprint Europe. GUF-2012 is derived from (commercial) 3 m-resolution TerraSAR-X/TanDEM-X SAR data and is available in 12 m resolution for any scientific use and in 84 m for any non-profit use. Commercial applications have to check with Airbus for the licensing.”

Currently, over 50% of the world’s populations lives in cities, and the figure is rapidly increasing as urban areas continue to draw more and more individuals. The Global Urban Footprint, which the ESA references, aims to deliver the worldwide mapping of settlements with an unprecedented spatial resolution of ~12 m. What you’re basically seeing in black are settled areas.

“The resulting map shows the Earth in three colors only: black for “urban areas”, white for “land surface” and grey for “water”. This reduction emphasizes the settlement patterns and allows for the analysis of urban structures, and hence the proportion of settled areas, the regional population distribution and the arrangement of rural and urban areas,” the project’s website reads.

This is yet another indicator of what an impact mankind is having on the planet, but these maps can be even more valuable, in offering the potential to  enhance climate modeling, risk analyses in earthquake or tsunami regions and the monitoring of human impact on ecosystems. It can also serve as a basis to study urban growth.

The Milky Way, as you’ve never seen it before

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) unveiled a new bedazzling image of the Milky Way, snapped by the APEX telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert.


The composite image was glued together from 700 observations captured by the telescope, and it represents the most detailed image ever created of our galaxy from the Southern hemisphere. The APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy (ATLASGAL) took more than three years to create this image, from July 2007 to November 2010, but it’s definitely worth it.

“ATLASGAL has allowed us to have a new and transformational look at the dense interstellar medium of our own galaxy, the Milky Way,” astronomer Leonardo Testi said in a statement. “The new release of the full survey opens up the possibility to mine this marvelous dataset for new discoveries.”

It’s also the first time this part of the Milky Way has been imaged at the submillimeter wavelengths between infrared light and radio waves.

Visualizing at different wavelengths lets us see different things – these particular wavelengths are useful for observing very cold and dusty regions of the universe. These areas are generally difficult to study because they are almost always dark and obscured by dust.

“We can for the first time get a full census of the star-forming regions within our own galaxy,” ESO scientist Carlos De Breuck told CNN. “This allows us to find all such regions and to study their properties.”



A rose in its own right: Nebula blossoms in deep space photo

A rosy, star-forming nebula thousands of light years away from Earth is “blossoming” in a dazzling cosmic spectacle. Messier 17, also known as the Omega Nebula, the Swan Nebula and the Horseshoe Nebula was shot in some remarkable photos revealed by the European Space Agency.

The Messier 17 star-forming region is about 5,500 light-years from Earth. Image via ESA.

Messier 17 is located some 5,500 light years away from Earth, and spans across 15 light years itself. The total mass of the Omega Nebula is an estimated 800 solar masses, but it is considered one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions of our galaxy.

The white is real color, but the red hue is a chemical signature of the hydrogen.

“Its coloring is a signature of glowing hydrogen gas,” ESO said in a statement. “The short-lived blue stars that recently formed in Messier 17 emit enough ultraviolet light to heat up surrounding gas to the extent that it begins to glow brightly. In the central region the colors are lighter, and some parts appear white. This white color is real — it arises as a result of mixing the light from the hottest gas with the starlight reflected by dust.”

Another mind-blowing photo of the nebula was taken in 2012, also by the ESA:

Image via ESA.

The first attempt to accurately draw the nebula (as part of a series of sketches of nebulae) was made by John Herschel in 1833, and published in 1836. Sketches were also made by William Lassell in 1862 using his four-foot telescope at Malta, and by M. Trouvelot from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The topography of comet 67P. Photo: ESA

The most detailed topography of a comet

Ten years ago, the European Space Agency launched the Rosetta probe tasked to orbit a comet for the very first time and study it up close with unprecedented detail. Six billion miles later, the probe reached its target, the four-kilometer wide 67P comet, and has beamed back some of the most breathtaking images of a comet science has witnessed. The most recent shot released by ESA captures the comet so close that we can even see its intricate topography.

Captioned below, the photograph in question was captured while Rosetta was hovering only 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5-mile-wide (four-kilometer) comet. We can clearly distinguish the three sections of the comet: the head (top view – filled with cliff-like structures), neck (narrow middle view – a smooth surface) and body (bottom view – riddled with peaks and valleys). Looks familiar? Sure it does. It’s a beautiful mountain (of ice) hurling away in space! How often do you get to see that?

The topography of comet 67P. Photo: ESA

The topography of comet 67P. Photo: ESA

If this is a comet, where’s its tail? Ahh, the magic is about to happen soon enough when 67P’s orbit will enter an area where the sun’s radiation is greater, causing ice displacement and melting. That’s when the comet’s corona and tail will form and Rosetta will be there to image the event in all its splendor. Before this happens, though, Rosetta is tasked with a mission of even greater importance.

Some scientists believe comets play a crucial role in distributing compounds throughout the solar system that are quintessential to forming life. This November, the spacecraft will get close enough to the comet to release the Philae lander, a tiny probe that will drill through the comet’s insides and analyze its chemical makeup.

BONUS! Below is the same image of 67P, only in 3D. You’ll need 3D glasses to view it, so dust off those old theater goggles from the attic.



Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Rosetta’s Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by the German Aerospace Center, Cologne; Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen; French National Space Agency, Paris; and the Italian Space Agency, Rome. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the U.S. participation in the Rosetta mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Star surveyor Gaia enters its operational orbit

The European Space Agency‘s billion-dollar star surveyor ‘Gaia’ is now in its operational orbit around a gravitationally stable virtual point in space, at about 1.5 million km from Earth.

Gaia has been traveling to reach that point since December 19, following a spectacular launch from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Last night, the surveyor performed the last critical maneuvers, and everything went just fine.

“Entering orbit around L2 is a rather complex endeavour, achieved by firing Gaia’s thrusters in such a way as to push the spacecraft in the desired direction whilst keeping the Sun away from the delicate science instruments,” describes David Milligan, Gaia spacecraft operations manager. After a beautiful launch from Kourou last month, we are very happy to now have reached our destination, and we are looking forward to starting our science operations in the coming months,” says Giuseppe Sarri, ESA’s Gaia project manager.

Gaia’s mission is to make very accurate observations of approximately one billion stars, charting not only their precise positions and motions, but also their temperatures, luminosities and even compositions. The result will be the largest map of the Milky Way done so far, with a huge amount of data which will allow astronomers to better understand the formation and evolution of our galaxy.

Gaia will observe each star an average of 70 times over the five-year mission, and it’s estimated that the data archive will reach 1 million gigabytes – the equivalent of approximately 200.000 DVDs. The monumental task of processing and interpreting the data will fall on the back of more than 400 individuals at scientific institutes across Europe.

“Our Gaia discovery machine will keep us busy throughout the mission, with the final results coming only after the five years of data have been analysed. But it will be well worth the wait, ultimately giving us a new view of our cosmic neighbourhood and its history,” says Timo Prusti, ESA’s Gaia project scientist.

Via ESA.

Taking 3D printing into the metal age, and into outer space

We’ve already written novels on how much 3D printing has evolved and what magnificent things we can accomplish through it: from printing bacteria to printing baroc rooms, from saving babies’ lives to rocket engines and from ears and cartilages to nanoscale objects, 3D printing promises to revolutionize the world we live in. Now, the European Space Agency (ESA, the “European NASA”) has unveiled plans to “take 3D printing into the metal age” by building parts for jets, spacecraft and fusion projects.

3D printing metal 1

The Amaze project brings together 28 institutions with the purpose of developing complex printed parts made of metal that can withstand temperatures at 1000°C – fit for space as well as for the most demanding applications on Earth. ESA has already announced that these parts are lighter, stronger and cheaper than conventional parts – something which if true, will probably revolutionize space flight (again). Printing metal parts would also cut waste. Additive manufacturing – building parts up layer-on-layer from 3D digital data – produces almost “zero waste”.

“To produce one kilo of metal, you use one kilo of metal – not 20 kilos,” says Esa’s Franco Ongaro.”We need to clean up our act – the space industry needs to be more green. And this technique will help us.”

They have already revealed some parts which can withstand temperatures of 3,000C, at the showcase at the London Science Museum. At such extreme conditions, they could be used in nuclear fusion reactors and on the nozzles of rockets.

“We want to build the best quality metal products ever made. Objects you can’t possibly manufacture any other way,” said David Jarvis, Esa’s head of new materials and energy research.

The implications for this development can be huge, he explains.

3d printing metal 2

“To build a [fusion reactor], like Iter, you somehow have to take the heat of the Sun and put it in a metal box. 3,000C is as hot as you can imagine for engineering. If we can get 3D metal printing to work, we are well on the way to commercial nuclear fusion.”

But as far as this 20 million euro project has gone, it still has some hurdles to pass – the “dirty secrets of 3D printing”, as they are often called.

“One common problem is porosity – small air bubbles in the product. Rough surface finishing is an issue too,” he said. “We need to understand these defects and eliminate them – if we want to achieve industrial quality. And we need to make the process repeatable – scale it up. We can’t do all this unless we collaborate between industries – space, fusion, aeronautics.”

Their ultimate goal would have seemed impossible 10 years ago, hell, it seems incredibly ambitious even now:

“Our ultimate aim is to print a satellite in a single piece. One chunk of metal, that doesn’t need to be welded or bolted,” said Jarvis.

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

ESA discovers huge 1,000 miles long Martian river

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

Using combined imagery delivered by the  High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) and recent color channel data, the European Space Agency has recently discovered the vestiges of an ancient river that used to flow through Mars’ highlands. The river is 1,000 miles long and at some points 4 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep.

The images are simply stunning and it’s enough to catch a glimpse for imagination to take care of the rest. A stunning world riddled with rivers and oceans tells of a watery past, not too dissimilar from modern day Earth, possibly blossoming with life. With this in mind, I highly recommend you check these fantastic and realistic-looking renditions of how Mars might have looked like a few billion years ago.

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

A dead planet once covered in water

In these views, ESA imaged the ancient river that used to flow with  water between 1.8 and 3.5 billion years ago, before running dry due to evaporation. The river, which the agency named Reull Vallis, even has tributaries and quite a few actually.

“The region shows a striking resemblance to the morphology found in regions on Earth affected by glaciation,” the ESA said in a statement. The discovery is “giving planetary geologists tantalizing glimpses of a past on the Red Planet not too dissimilar to events on our own world.”

In the color-coded version from below, one can see how the topography of the Reull Vallis looks like – the main channel is coded in blue, while neighboring Promethei Terra Highlands are coded in red.

Equipped with a regular and a topographic view, ESA scientists built a computer generated image of the region that offers a much cleaner view with perspective. If you look closely right in the upper part of this “S” shaped portion of the Reull Vallis you’ll see evidence of what was once a tributary river. Amazing!

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

(c) Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin


ESA gets big budget, prepares Mars mission

After no less than 48 hours of negotiating in Naples, Italy, the 20 European nations that support the European Space Agency (ESA) have finally agreed on a budget for the agency and a set of priorities which, while not delightful, doesn’t disappoint, despite the tight economic situation Europe is in at the moment.

ESA’s activities, much like NASA‘s, are quite diverse – from monitoring meteorology to communications, space exploration and running the International Space Station. However, the objectives for the near future are drawn out quite firmly: space exploration is the priority. While a mission to the Moon hasn’t been approved, governments have agreed on a mission to Mars, in collaboration with Russia: the much-troubled ExoMars mission will take place in 2016, if everything goes according to plan.

“It’s a pity that we’ve lost the partnership with NASA but it’s good that we’ve now got the Russians coming in instead, so we’re optimistic that this is now on track,” British Science Minister David Willetts said.

The big fund raise was offered by the UK, who, for the first time, said it will be contributing to the budget. However, the UK is interested in satellite development and meteorology.

“We are backing sectors where Britain has got great strengths, for example the next generation of telecomms satellites,” he said. “We think that satellite broadband, satellite TV, satellite communications will be very important to the future”, Willets added.

No, this isn't a garden hose plug, but an artist impression of CHEOPS - a newly approved space telescope mission from the European Space Agency, charged with the delicate mission of finding Earth-like planets neighbouring our own blue marble. Photograph: University of Bern

New ESA planet-hunter space telescope slated for 2017

The European Space Agency has officially announced that it will launch a new space telescope tasked with the primary objective of finding Earth-like planets in our neighboring cosmic backyard. Though the mission’s budget is rather small, there’s nothing modest about its goals.

No, this isn't a garden hose plug, but an artist impression of CHEOPS -  a newly approved space telescope mission from the European Space Agency, charged with the delicate mission of finding Earth-like planets neighbouring our own blue marble. Photograph: University of Bern

No, this isn’t a garden hose plug, but an artist impression of CHEOPS – a newly approved space telescope mission from the European Space Agency, charged with the delicate mission of finding Earth-like planets neighbouring our own blue marble. Photograph: University of Bern

Dubbed CHEOPS or CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite, at the end of its 3.5 year-long scheduled mission the space telescope should offer a list of Earth-like planets or exoplanets of close proximity. To do this, CHEOPS will function much in the same way as Kepler, the most famous planet-hunter space telescope, by studying a star’s brightness and looking for blips that hint of an object orbiting. By measuring the wobbling effect of a star’s brightness, scientists can tell its radius and mass. With this at hand, they can further establish a planet’s density, which helps describe its composition.

Kepler has retrieved some exciting finds during its mission, as it currently confirmed 77 planets and discovered thousands of candidates. The main problem with Kepler, though, is that its aimed at points in the skyline extremely far away from Earth. Thus, the planets found thus far by the space telescope can’t be followed-up with subsequent research using ground telescopes simply because they’re so far away. CHEOPS seeks to address this issue by peering through closer stars, as it surveys dense starfields in the Milky Way.

The 50 million euro CHEOPS will be able to detect planets down to the mass of the Earth and will have the sensitivity to show which planets have dense atmospheres; valuable information that might hint the fabled discovery of a potentially life harboring alien planet. And it’s not only CHEOPS scientific goals that are exciting, but the prospects it holds for future space exploration as well – the space telescope will be the first of a series of small missions, each one rapidly developed at low cost to investigate new scientific ideas quickly.

 “I think it is realistic to expect to be able to infer within a few decades whether a planet like Earth has oxygen/ozone in its atmosphere, and if it is covered with vegetation,” Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

press release

Europe to lead ambitious Sun mission

Europe aims for the stars: known as the Solar Orbiter will fly towards the Sun and get closer to it than any other man made object has; also, ESA will launch two other missions with the purpose of studying dark matter and dark energy.

Closer to the Sun

The mission was adopted today, and it will cost almost one billion euro. NASA will also participate in the mission, providing two instruments for the probe and the rocket which will launch it on its way, but this very ambitious mission is Europe’s project – and everybody from the ESA seems very proud:

“And I’m really looking forward to Solar Orbiter, which will become the reference for solar physics in the years to come,” said Alvaro Gimenez, ESA’s director of science.

A launch date hasn’t been officially proposed yet, but somewhere around 2017-2019 seems quite likely, if anything doesn’t change significantly. The probe will orbit around the star, staring directly into the furnace; but staring isn’t its primary job.

“Solar Orbiter is not so much about taking high-resolution pictures of the Sun, although we’ll get those; it’s about getting close and joining up what happens on the Sun with what happens in space,” explained Tim Horbury from Imperial College London and one of Solar Orbiter’s lead scientists.

There are some phenomena around the sun which we have only a basic understanding of.

“The solar wind and coronal mass ejections – these big releases of material coming off the Sun; we don’t know precisely where they’re coming from, and precisely how they’re generated. Solar Orbiter can help us understand that.”

Dark energy and dark matter

The ESA delegates, who were meeting in Paris, also approved a mission to investigate two of the great mysteries of modern cosmology – dark matter and dark energy. Some physicists are convinced that these phenomena dictate and shape the way our Universe evolves. The Euclid telescope will map the distribution of galaxies to try to get some fresh insight on these dark puzzles.

Just like the solar orbiter, the Euclid telescope will cost around 1 billion euro, but it still needs to pass some legislative hurdles in order to be approver, so a launch will probably not occur until 2019.

“They are both exciting missions, and it was really good to hear today that the physics Nobel Prize was awarded to research on the accelerating Universe, which is of course linked to Euclid,” mister Himenez added.

Euclid has the Herculean task of mapping out the spread of galaxies and clusters of galaxies over 10 billion years of cosmic history, as well as mapping their 3D distributon. The patterns of huge voids that exist between galaxies can offer important clues about the expansion of the cosmos through time – expansion which appears to be accelerating as a consequence of some unknown property of space itself referred to by scientists as dark energy.

“Euclid will give us an insight into how structures in the Universe are growing and whether they are growing at the rate we expect from General Relativity (our theory of gravity on large scales),” said Bob Nichol, a Euclid scientist from Portsmouth University.

But there’s even more.

“But aside from all that, Euclid should also deliver a picture of the Universe that has Hubble clarity over the whole sky. Euclid will detect billions of objects and they will all be there for us to go look at. And when we look back 50 years from now, that could be the one thing about Euclid we all say was worth it – a tremendous legacy for our children,” he told BBC News.

NASA passing the torch

The European Space Agency wants to launch this project on its own, but that could change pretty quick, as the Americans are desperate to run a similar mission they call WFirst (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope); however, due to the huge budget costs NASA underwent, it is likely that it won’t even be approved until Europe’s one has launched already – thus giving Europe a huge advantage in one of the most important fields of modern astrophysics. Thus, ESA has offered to give NASA a 20% part in this affair.

“The door is always open to the Americans, and we are ready to co-operate with them if they come with a reasonable proposal,” said Dr Gimenez.

All in all, ESA seems to be moving, slowly but certainly in the right direction, and in the decades to come, it’s quite possible for it to become the leading edge in space exploration and astrophysics.