ESA’s science programme elicits bold ideas

The next six months sees six ideas- ranging from a visit to the Asteroid Belt to incredibly sensitive gyroscopes- undergoing close examination by the European Space Agency

The next six months sees six ideas- ranging from a visit to the Asteroid Belt to incredibly sensitive gyroscopes- undergoing close examination as the European Space Agency’s science advisors move towards the selection of Flexi-missions for launch between 2005 and 2006. Science working groups and the Space Science Advisory Committee have chosen them from 49 ideas submitted since last October.

ESA introduced Flexi-missions in 1997, in a move that replaced medium-scale projects, of which Huygens (Titan lander) and Integral (gamma-ray astronomy) are current examples. Mars Express, already under construction for launch in 2003, is the first Flexi-mission and F2 and F3 are now also under consideration.

The front-runner in the astronomy field for one of these slots is the Next Generation Space Telescope (the fruit of European cooperation with NASA), the successor to the NASA-ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Of the new proposals, half concern the solar system and the Earth’s space environment.STORMS is a scheme to use three spacecraft to investigate solar eruptions, a source of big trouble for technological systems. The so-called ring current of energetic charged particles circles around the equator at altitudes of several times the earth’s radius, and its varying intensity during solar storms causes magnetic perturbations at the earth’s surface. Three identical spacecraft, orbiting out to 50,000km and equally spaced around the equator, could clear up several remaining mysteries of the ring current – and also provide real-time monitoring of magnetic storms.

SOLAR ORBITER would fly on an extended orbit taking it at intervals to within about 30 million km of the sun – much closer than the innermost planet. At its closest approach the spacecraft would round the sun at roughly the same rate as the sun itself rotates, so that it should seem to hover over one region. Besides giving unprecedented close-up views of the solar surface and atmosphere, the orbiter would directly sense the related behaviour of the solar wind and energetic particles in the Sun’s vicinity. With the passage of time the orbit would slant at an increasing angle to the Sun’s equator.

Commented Roger Bonnet, ESA’s director of science, ‘As is always the case, these exciting proposals give us an embarrassment of riches – that’s thanks to the vigour and imagination of Europe’s space science community’.