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20 June 2014

50 Years of European Cooperation into Space Research

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Through the Fundación madri+d, Álvaro Giménez, Javier Ventura-Traveset and J. Miguel Mas share a full article with OpenMind that reviews the last 50 years of Europe in space. What will the next challenge be?

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union opened the path to Space by sending Sputnik 1 into orbit. A few months later, Explorer 1, the first artificial satellite launched by the United States, discovered the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the Earth. The space race had started. Space had become the final frontier for Humanity, and numerous scientists and engineers began to dream about the opportunities it offered. However, it would not be a simple task. Accessing Space requires very sophisticated and expensive technology, which can only be developed by great powers.

In that context, a Europe that was beginning to get over the disasters of war and that was growing at a good pace, was aware that we would only be able to reach Space by joining forces with other countries. And with that objective, on March 20, 1964, the European Organizations ESRO (European Space Research Organization) and ELDO (European Launch Development Organization) were born, which merged in 1975 to constitute the current European Space Agency (ESA), of which Spain is a founding member and the fifth most important country. Article II of the ESA Convention sums up its mission: “To provide for and promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European States in space research and technology and their space applications”.

50 years have passed since the initiative of researchers such as Pierre Auger and Edoardo Amaldi became one of the most successful European initiatives. At present, there are 20 European countries that are members of the European Space Agency, together with Canada, which is an associate member. There are 18 countries in the European Union, alongside Switzerland and Norway. Over these 50 years of European cooperation, there have been successes, both scientific and technological, that have situated Europe as the leader in the international market of commercial launchers and on the spearhead of space research. Nowadays, Europe can boast about having established a coherent space policy, of having independent access to space with the most competitive rocket launchers on the market and of having created a space industry and scientific community of the highest standing. During this period, the ESA has developed more than 70 satellites and currently has 18 operational scientific satellites.

Why do scientists find it so necessary to go to Space?

We can list several reasons. The first, and most important, is because our atmosphere is opaque to high energy radiation, from ultraviolet to X-rays and gamma rays. While this characteristic has enabled the development of life on the surface of the Earth (high energy radiation would have sterilized any signs of life had it not been for the atmospheric protection), it has acted as a barrier, preventing astronomers from studying the hottest and most violent areas of the Universe, dominated by enormous black holes that determine the future of the galaxies. At the end of the 50s there was only proof of one object external to the Earth that emitted X-rays, our Sun. However, we now know of several million sources, the properties of which astronomers are trying to unravel by means of observations provided by telescopes located in Space. European contribution to this field has been essential, in particular the large space observatories, XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL, currently operational. But the atmosphere doesn’t just block high energy radiation, it also blocks emissions from the cold Universe, in the infrared range. Missions specialized in this range such as ISO, Herschel and Planck formed milestones in the European and world wide space research, and provided data that scientists took many years to study in depth.

The second reason that drives scientists to go to Space is the possibility of taking our instruments to the most interesting places in the Solar System for in situ studies. The landing of the Huygens European probe on the surface of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, was a milestone in the history of space exploration because it was the furthest celestial object that a human artifact had landed on. The next big objective is Mars, a planet that once had large oceans and meets all the characteristics for having developed life in the first years of the Solar System. The Mars Express Probe has taken 3D photographs of the Martian surface in preparation for the ExoMars missions, which will touch down on the red planet in 2016 and 2018 in search of biological activity, present or past. The European ships have studied comets such as Haley in its Giotto mission and the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where a small probe from the Rosetta mission will land at the end of this year, another milestone of worldwide relevance. Other ships have studied the properties of planets such as Venus (Venus Express) and Mercury, which is where the Bebi-Colombo mission will reach at the beginning of the next decade following a 6 year journey due to begin in 2016. Observatories such as SOHO, Cluster, and from 2017, Solar Orbiter, continuously observe the Sun and its effects on the Earth’s magnetosphere, advising us about imminent solar storms that could effect telecommunications equipment.

Although space research has undoubtedly been the engine for technological development in this field, its maturity has enabled these technologies to be applied for the direct benefit of society, with the development of telecommunication, Earth observation and navigation satellites. The images of the Meteosat satellites have become our daily companions at the end of the news, substantially improving weather forecasts. More than 150 million homes in Europe have satellite television, and at present one in every three Telecommunications satellites made in the world are manufactured by the European space industry. In a very short time, the Galileo navigation system will be available for use on our cell phones and navigators, providing much more precise data than current GPSs used in the United States and they will be compatible with each other, which will benefit the hundreds of millions of people in the world who use this technology. Europe has also set up the Copernicus Earth observation program, possibly the most comprehensive and ambitious in the world.

Due to its nature, made up of 20 member countries, the international collaboration forms part of the DNA of the European Space Agency, a collaboration that goes further than European frontiers. One example is the Soyuz launcher, manufactured by Russia, which the European Space Agency has been operating from its spaceport in Kourou, or the multiple scientific missions that have been carried out over the last 30 years between the main agencies. This decade, for example, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ExoMars and Bepi-Colombo have been made possible thanks to the cooperation between European scientists and engineers and their American, Russian and Japanese colleagues, respectively. The best example of world wide space cooperation is the International Space Station, the greatest structure ever sent into orbit and from where researchers from different continents carry out their research in unique microgravity conditions. Through the ESA, Europe contributes to the station with the Columbus laboratory, with more than a third of the pressurized models, the ATV cargo crafts and making its astronaut corps available, which includes our compatriot and great astronaut, Pedro Duque.

The overall objective of this long term international collaboration will be the manned journey to Mars, with in situ studies carried out by experienced astronauts that will enable us to understand how this planet lost its oceans and became the frozen dessert that it is today. A mission like this is only possible with the cooperation of all the space agencies, in a spirit of harmony and cooperation. But scientist’s dreams go further than that: it’s just a question of time until humans, Humanity, ends up visiting all the parts of the Solar System. And who knows when we will go even further, to the stars that shine in the sky. Together we could do it.

To access the original version of this article published in Madri+d, click here.

Álvaro Giménez, Javier Ventura-Traveset

European Space Agency

J. Miguel Mas

CSIC-INTA Astrobiology Center

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