Thursday, November 28, 2013

European Space Agency (ESA) sets a path for big space science

Europe has fixed a broad plan for the big space science missions it will launch over the next two decades.

It will likely lead to a large X-ray telescope being launched in 2028, and to an orbiting observatory to detect gravitational waves going up in 2034.

Together, these two ventures will cost in excess of 2bn euros (£1.7bn).

They join a mission already approved known as Juice, which will see a big satellite sent to observe Jupiter and its icy moons in 2022.

The path ahead was set by the Science Policy Committee (SPC) of the European Space Agency (Esa), which is meeting in Paris, France.

The committee's decision should now give clear direction and certainty to Europe's research and industrial base.

Fabio Favata
"These big missions take a long time to put together - of the order of 20 years," said Dr Fabio Favata, head of Esa's Science Planning and Community Coordination Office.

"Of course, when you fix things you trade flexibility for stability, but this gives the community the opportunity to plan. They now understand what will be the 'pillars', what will be the 'cornerstones'," he told reporters.

The SPC gathering was asked to approve a set of scientific "themes" that will guide the selection of Esa's next Large Class mission opportunities.

The agency tries to launch one of these flagship endeavours every six years.

The themes are titled the "hot and energetic Universe", and the "gravitational Universe".

And although these themes do not endorse a specific X-ray telescope or gravitational wave detection concept, their prescription is so tight that only two candidates can have real confidence of making it through the forthcoming selection process.

These are the two consortia that narrowly lost out to the Juice team in the last L-Class competition in 2012.

The Athena+ science instruments. Left: Design drawing of the X-IFU showing the Dewar and a zoom on the focal plane assembly. Right: Design drawing of the WFI.

The X-ray telescope proposal currently goes by the name of Athena+. It would be roughly four tonnes in mass and have a 12m focal length.

With a survey capability and sensitivity a hundred times better than today's best space telescopes, Athena+ would be used to study the origin of the monstrous black holes that reside at the centres of galaxies, among other objectives.

A Lisa-like observatory would detect gravitational waves using lasers fired across millions of km of space

It would fire lasers across millions of km of space to try to measure the disturbance in the fabric of space-time resulting from exploding stars and merging black holes.

The gravitational wave observatory, Laser Interferometer Space Antennagoes, (Lisa).

It is a concept that has been studied for the better part of 20 years already.

Indeed, ESA is about to fly a small satellite called Lisa Pathfinder to demonstrate some of the key technologies.

The agency will call for proposals to take the 2028 launch opportunity early next year. There will then be a design phase with various technical reviews before a formal adoption of a mission in about 2018.

Read the full article here

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