Page last updated at 23:51 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Europe expects busy year in space

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Jean-Jacques Dordain (Esa)
Esa's director general wants another vintage year

Europe will launch two flagship space telescopes this year, and three satellites that will acquire key data about ice, gravity and soils on Earth.

European Space Agency boss Jean-Jacques Dordain set out his priorities for 2009 at a Paris briefing on Wednesday.

He said 2008's successes, which saw the Columbus science lab attached to the space station, were "exceptional".

"Last year was really an outstanding vintage," he added. "But there'll be no breathing space going forward."

Esa activity this year will witness the recruitment of new astronauts and the start of Soyuz launches from the European spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana.

The Soyuz initiative has required considerable investment at Kourou, to construct facilities that are a facsimile of those at the Russian rocket's traditional home of Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

GOCE (Esa)
Goce will map variations in the Earth's gravity field

"This will be a significant milestone in many ways," explained Mr Dordain.

"We really do need Soyuz because at least half of Esa missions are due for launch on Soyuz, whether that be scientific missions or Galileo [satellite-navigation] satellites."

On the much-delayed Galileo programme, Mr Dordain said 2009 would be marked by positive progress, with the first contracts to build the system finally awarded in the coming months.

Esa is a buoyant organisation at the moment. Last year, it not only delivered Columbus to the space station but flew its space freighter, the ATV, to the platform for the first time.

Vega (Esa)
If all goes to plan, 2009 will see the maiden launch of Vega

The cargo ship, which performed flawlessly, will become the main way of resupplying the ISS when the US shuttle fleet retires.

And in November, the 18 member-states of Esa agreed to pump 10bn euros into the organisation to fund programmes over the next three-to-five years. Ministers said increased spending on hi-tech space industries would help Europe ride out the effects of the global economic slowdown.

But Mr Dordain said he was mindful of the difficult circumstances being experienced by many small enterprises operating in the space sector.

He said it was imperative that Esa handled contracts properly, and encouraged prompt payment of bills.

"I am thinking particularly of small suppliers, SMEs, which are very important for us here at Esa," he explained.

"They provide us with the technology we need. As they are small companies, they are far more fragile and vulnerable, especially in cash terms. I certainly don't want Esa to cause problems for companies such as these."

Some Esa highlights for 2009 will include:

Herschel mirror (Esa)
Big vision: The mirror for Herschel is bigger even than Hubble's

Herschel: The space telescope will launch in the spring on an Ariane 5. The telescope is dedicated to observing the Universe at far-infrared wavelengths. This will allow it, for example, to see through the dust that obscures the earliest phases of star and planetary formation.

Planck: This telescope will ride into space with Herschel on the same Ariane. It will study the cosmic microwave background radiation. Sometimes referred to as the "first light" in the Universe, the CMB carries information about the earliest structures in the cosmos.

Soyuz: The Russian rocket will start launching from Europe's Kourou spaceport. Because rockets launched close to the equator get a favourable "kick" from the Earth's rotation, Soyuz at Kourou will have increased capacity. In 2010, Soyuz will start launching operational Galileo satellites.

Vega: This is Europe's newest rocket. It is currently scheduled to make its maiden flight from Kourou in December. Vega will be used for smaller payloads that have struggled recently to find an available launcher. Vega is part of Europe's policy of having "guaranteed access" to space.

Frank de Winne (Esa)
Frank de Winne will command Expedition 21 on the ISS

Frank De Winne: The Belgian astronaut will become the first European commander of the International Space Station. He will launch to the orbiting platform on a Soyuz in May. His tour of duty will last roughly six months. He will have a five-person crew under his charge.

Goce: The wedge-shaped satellite will be the first of Esa's Earth Explorers to go into orbit. The spacecraft will map subtle differences in the pull of gravity across the Earth's surface. The data will reveal new details about ocean behaviour and underpin a universal system of height measurement.

Smos: Esa's Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity mission has been designed to observe soil moisture over the Earth's landmasses and salinity over the oceans. It will improve our understanding of the Earth's water cycle and ocean circulation patterns.

Cryosat-2: The first Cryosat mission was destroyed on launch. Esa member states agreed that its mission was important enough to demand a re-build. The endeavour will measure the rates of change of land and marine ice thickness very precisely.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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