Details released this week of the European Space Agency's programme for 2013 promise a busy schedule and plenty material to pique the interest of amateur astronomers and astrophysicists alike. Projects range from the launch of the new Gaia global space astrometry mission to missions tracking global vegetation and the Earth’s magnetic field. Towards the end of the year, preparations will start for the long awaited Rosetta comet chaser mission
ESA’s Ongoing Satellite Missions and New Launches in 2013
Next month the ESA
is scheduled to take delivery of the Global Astrometric Interferometer for Astrophysics — with the appropriate GAIA acronym. Gaia
is a global space astrometry mission featuring the largest digital camera ever to be deployed in space. Gaia is scheduled for launch in the autumn of 2013 and is designed to map our own Milky Way galaxy in 3D, survey more than a billion stars. Gaia, which was first proposed in 1993, is expected to be launched on board a Soyuz rocket in late 2013 from the Centre Spatial Guyanais
(CSG) in French Guiana to begin its mission to chart the Milky Way galaxy.
In February, a conference is scheduled to review results from the ESA’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission which has been surveying the Earth since launch in 2009. SMOS takes observations of soil moisture in the land and sea water salinity in Earth’s oceans with the primary purpose of better understanding the Earth’s water cycle.
Launched in 2009, the Planck space observatory
has been continuing to study the Cosmic Microwave Background, believed to be radiation remnants dating back to our Universe’s Big Bang. Provisionally, the first all-sky images of the Cosmic Microwave Background will be presented to astronomers and the scientific community in March 2013.
April is a busy month for launches with no less than three new satellite missions planned. First off should be the launch of the miniature satellite Proba-V on the new Vega launch vehicle from the ESA’s launch facility at the CSG in French Guiana
. Proba-V’s principal mission is to track global vegetation but as a subsidiary mission it will also take five promising new technologies from across Europe into space with the dual purpose of testing a capability to transport several payloads into different orbits above the Earth.
Also in April, the ESA’s Swarm mission
to examine the Earth’s magnetic field (featured video above) will be launched from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome. This multi-satellite mission will place three satellites in different polar orbits at heights ranging from 400 kilometres to 550 kilometres. The satellites should make the best survey to date of the earth’s magnetic field.
The fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) named Albert Einstein is due to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) in April. Mounted atop an Ariane 5 rocket, each ATV can deliver up to 7 tonnes of a varied payload of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. ATVs are designed to be versatile and as well as keeping the ISS supplied, ATVs can dock with the ISS to boost its orbit and are sometimes used to manoeuvre the ISS to avoid collisions with space debris.
In search of the Rosetta Stone
Preparations for the Rosetta comet chaser mission
will start in November 2013 in anticipation of the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft being awoken from hibernation in January 2014. The ESA’s Rosetta mission is the one most likely to hit the headlines, involving an orbiter and a lander analysing a comet on the comet’s approach to the Sun. The ESA put Rosetta to sleep on January 8, 2011 but after three years of slumber, Rosetta is scheduled to awake to take up the chase to rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014. The ESA describes comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as a large dirty snowball orbiting the Sun every 6.6 years. As the Rosetta spacecraft nears the comet in late spring 2014, there is the prospect of some spectacular photographs before the hoped for completion of the highly ambitious mission objective to position the Rosetta lander on the comet.
Telecommunications and GPS satellite launches
During summer 2013, the launch will take place at the CSG in French Guiana of the Alphasat I-XL mission on board an Ariane 5 rocket. The Alphasat mission is a Public–Private Partnership between ESA and Inmarsat Global Limited with the ESA providing the first flight model of the new Alphabus platform. The Alphabus platform is designed to allow European industry to extend its telecommunication satellite range significantly beyond the capabilities of existing platforms.
In the second half of 2013, further progress will be made towards the European Union having its own satellite navigation capability, named Galileo
, rather than having to rely on existing systems operated by the US, Russia and China. Four fully operational Galileo satellites will be launched in pairs aboard two Soyuz launch vehicles. These satellites will eventually make up part of a full complement of 27 operational satellites and three spares in orbit above the Earth.
Also planned for late 2013 is the launch of the Sentinel-1 mission on a Soyuz rocket. Sentinel 1 represents the first stage of a new generation of satellites for the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme in conjunction with the European Union. The GMES programme
is intended to assemble data from a number of environmental satellites, air and ground stations to provide a comprehensive picture of the Earth’s state of health with a view to better formulating and monitoring the effectiveness of legislation on environmental matters, including climate change.
What’s in prospect
July will see the ESA taking delivery of the near-infrared spectrograph component of the James Webb Space Telescope
, a joint venture involving NASA, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. The James Webb Telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope but astronomers have a few years to wait until the James Webb Space Telescope reveals more of the Universe’s secrets. Launch is not scheduled until 2018. The James Webb Space Telescope will open up whole new areas of astrophysics. As well as allowing the continuous observation of 100 faint galaxies to determine their chemical composition, it will also allow astronomers to detect water on planets orbiting distant stars.