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Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Europe heads for space
Rosetta, Esa
Rosetta will orbit and land on a comet

The European Space Agency (Esa) is to probe the depths of space, travel to the inner edge of the Solar System and hitch a ride on a comet during the next decade, according to plans recently given approval.

Esa's science director, Dr David Southwood, said the exploration package had been quite a struggle to put together.


We are going to Mars, back to the Moon and also to look for the earliest violent events in the Universe

Dr David Southwood
"I feel immensely proud of what we have been able to achieve, but don't ask me to do it again," he told BBC News Online.

One casualty, however, has been the proposed mission to Venus. This had to be dropped because it could not be done in time.

"That really is a loss, but what is really remarkable is that we can do so much within the budget," Dr Southwood said.

Lost sleep

Esa plans an assault on the Solar System starting next year.

In 2003, it will launch the Rosetta mission to orbit and land on a comet; the Smart 1 mission will survey the Moon and test advanced technologies; and the much awaited Mars Express will take Europe to the Red Planet.

Beagle, Esa
Beagle will search for life on Mars
Mars Express will perform an advanced survey of Mars and will also attempt to deliver the Beagle 2 lander down on to the surface.

Beagle 2, a British initiative, was a proposal from outside Esa. It came after Mars Express had been designed, and has not been without its problems.

Dr Southwood admits: "It's not been easy at all. Let's say it's the thing I lose most sleep about.

"There are certain showstoppers coming and we will send Mars Express to the Red Planet even if Beagle 2 is not ready. But if we do not carry it, then you can trust me to find another way to get it to Mars."

Venus regret

Dr Southwood told News Online of his regret that Esa could not fly a mission to Venus.

"The loss of the Venus Express is a real loss. We had to launch it in 2005 because the industrial consortium that is constructing Mars Express and Rosetta cannot be maintained beyond then. In the time available, it was too much of a risk."

Southwood, Esa
Dr David Southwood: "Immensely proud"
But what regrets he has about a Venus probe is outweighed by the potential offered by Esa's other programmes. The line-up of missions is remarkable considering the flat budget the agency has given to its space science department.

Esa is planning a mission to explore Mercury called BepiColombo, although the details have yet to be finalised.

"There is only one bit of science that is threatened and that is possibly the Mercury lander element of the BepiColombo mission. We are hoping to do that in co-operation with the Russians."

Moon, Mars and beyond

Overall, Dr Southwood is sure Esa has put together an outstanding package of astronomy and space science.

"We have the Herschell infrared observatory and the Planck mission to study the Cosmic Microwave Background; we have a mission to Mercury and a probe to orbit the Sun; we have a lander on a comet and an observatory to look at the Universe in gamma-rays."

Esa is also involved in an advanced gravitational wave observatory in space and the project to build a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

"We are going to Mars, back to the Moon and also to look for the earliest violent events in the Universe."

And Dr Southwood has high hopes for the Eddington mission, which will look for planets circling other stars.

But now that Esa's science mission to 2012 is signed and sealed, Dr Southwood must look even further ahead.

"We start thinking about the next decade, up to 2020, this autumn."

See also:

10 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
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