EUROPEAN CONSCIENCE - Success in space

Samantha, Rosetta and the other conquests of the European space program.

One we saw standing radiantly on the launch pad beside the rocket that was about to lift her up to the International Space Station (ISS); the other we have hardly noticed as it careened along its crazy and lonesome ten-year flight path through the cosmos. Who or what are we talking about?

The first is Samantha Cristoforetti: “A European of Italian nationality. Domiciled in space”, as she writes on her Twitter profile. On 23 November, she became the first Italian woman to go into space and the first to become a member of a European Space Agency (ESA) crew. Her Twitter username (@AstroSamantha) already has some 240,000 followers. That’s more than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has 69,000 and not far short of Bob Sinclair, one of the most renowned DJs in the world, whose followers total 370,000.

The second is Rosetta: the space probe that in November of 2014 reached the 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after a 10-year journey and landed the robot probe Philae on its surface. An extremely complex, high precision operation. But these are just the most recent achievements of ESA, which currently employs 35,000 people and has been resoundingly successful in its half-century existence since its inception in 1964. This level of success helped the European Council convince its 20 member states during a 2 December meeting to invest an additional €6 billion in its new ventures.

“In Europe we’ve decided on a policy that favours services of use to our citizens, thus most of our resources go into earth observation, weather, scientific, telecommunications and navigation satellites”, says ESA spokesperson Franco Bonacina. The 70 satellites that the Agency has designed and tested and is still running in space include Meteosat, ERS 1 and 2, Envisat and the three MetOp satellites. By analysing the earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans and ice packs, these satellites have been providing increasingly accurate observations of weather patterns and climate change since 1977.

As for transportation, in 2010 the European EGNOS system improved the accuracy of its GPS navigation systems, which have spawned applications essential for flight safety. Soon the new Galileo system will be providing a major contribution to the improvement of road, rail, air and sea transportation. It will also assist in the management of infrastructural and public works, crop and livestock farming, and even in bank transactions and on-line trade, besides its fundamental role played in rescue operations in crisis conditions.

Another of ESA's primary concerns relates to fundamental issues for mankind, such as the origin of life and whether we are alone in the cosmos. The Planck space telescope, first sent into orbit in 2009, is now relaying essential data required to improve our understanding of the origin of the universe. In 2005, with its Huygens probe, ESA masterminded the furthestever landing from Earth on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons located approximately 1.5 billion km from the sun. So what's next? The ministerial meeting gave the green light to the production of the Ariane 6 booster rocket (see box). Funding has also been found to keep the International Space Station up and running at least until 2020 and for the ExoMars project, a Mars exploration and landing program scheduled for 2018.

“Italy and the United Kingdom are the main partners of ExoMars, but there’s also considerable support from France and Germany”, says Jean-Jacques Dordain, the Agency’s managing director.

Today the European launch services are the most reliable in the world and it’s no surprise that ESA has now been called on by NASA to develop the multipurpose Orion vehicle: supposedly not just the heir to the Space Shuttle, shunted into retirement just a few years ago, but a true spaceship designed for extended travel in space, a first step towards an equivalent of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise. “Nine percent of our annual budget is spent on human space travel”, says Bonacina.

But that's not all. Another important project has been set up to try and solve the space waste issue. One of the side effects of space operations is that the earth’s orbit is filling with floating debris. “There are around 750,000 man-made objects currently in orbit”, Dr. Holger Krag, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, told East, “and even the smaller objects, travelling at 11 km/s, can destroy what we send into space, producing a plethora of fragments that can put certain areas of space out of bounds”. That’s why the Agency is investing in a waste collection program for which it is designing its own, state-of-the-art technology (

As ESA’s Dordain points out, “The collaborations between public and private institutions have been instrumental to the success of ESA”, which at present can rely on €15 billion of orders by such major companies as Eutelsat and Airbus Services to help telecommunications move into another gear. But what good is all this to the man in the street? Plenty, if, as ESA claims, each euro invested in space applications provides an economic return of more than €20 and the aerospace sector as a whole is currently propping up our economy and could help us dig ourselves out of our current and longstanding crisis. 

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