On Thursday, November 28th, 2019, European Space Agency (ESA) members agreed to a record €14.4 billion, promising to maintain Europe’s place at the top table alongside NASA and China. The four largest contributors to the budget are Germany (€3.3 billion); France (€2.7 billion), Italy (€2.3 billion) and the United Kingdom (€1.7 billion – ESA is not an EU organisation, so the UK’s involvement will remain unchanged when / if Brexit occurs, although EU funding of UK science and technology projects will be impacted).
The funding will allow ESA to move forward on a number of fronts in space exploration and technology development, including:
- The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) – the first space-based gravitational wave observatory, comprising three spacecraft placed in a triangular formation 2.5 million km apart and following the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. LISA will launch in the early 2030s.
- Transitioning ESA to the next generation of launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega-C.
- Continued support of the International Space Station, including continued participation in crew missions.
- Direct involvement in NASA’s Artemis lunar programme, including technology for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) and crewed missions.
- A joint Mars sample-return mission with NASA.
- Development of flexible satellite systems integrated with 5G networks, as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like ‘network in the sky.’
- The development of a European reusable space vehicle: Space RIDER.
Space RIDER (Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return) is a project I first wrote about in 2015, when ESA flew the European Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV). An uncrewed vehicle weighing just under 2 tonnes, it had the primary objective to research the re-entry and flight characteristics of a lifting body type of vehicle and test the re-entry shielding technologies for such a vehicle.
IXV paved the way for the initial development for Space RIDER, which will be an uncrewed cargo vehicle designed to be launched by the Vega rocket and capable of carrying up to 800 Kg of payload into orbit. All Space RIDER vehicles will be able to carry out around 5 flights apiece, reducing the overall cost of placing payloads into orbit. Following re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the vehicle will descend to Earth under a parasail, allowing it to glide to a nominated landing zone.
As well as being suitable for launching space payloads into orbit, Space RIDER will itself be a technology development vehicle for possible larger reusable vehicles using similar lifting body technology.
Space RIDER will largely be developed by Italy and the first flight is due to take place in 2022.
Happy Anniversary, InSight
On Monday, November 26th, 2018, NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander, built with international cooperation, arrived on the surface of Mars. The focus of the mission is to probe the Red Planet’s interior – its crust, mantle and core in order to answer key questions about the early formation of the rocky planets in our inner solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – more than 4 billion years ago.
Since that landing, the year has been an eventful one for InSight, the lander’s super-sensitive seismometer suite has detected more than 150 vibration events to date, about two dozen of which are confirmed marsquakes. However, and I’ve I’ve reported a number of times in these pages, InSight’s other primary science instrument, a burrowing heat probe called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³), has had tougher time.
The self-propelled “mole” probe designed to burrow down into the Martian sub-surface having been stuck for most of the year after only penetrating a few centimetres into the ground. Those operations only resumed in October 2019, and were short-lived after the probe inexplicably “bounced” its way almost completely out of the hole it had burrowed, leaving scientists and engineers still trying to work out what happened.
The solar-powered InSight is scheduled to operate for at least two Earth years.