Space: ESA sets new goals

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International  |  Nov. 17, 2003 at 11:27 AM
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A weekly series of articles by UPI examining the aerospace industries of selected countries.


WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency has taken a step toward defining a new direction for its space policy and programs.

An agreement to be signed by the ministers of the European Union and ESA on Nov. 27, call for the agency to craft a new, all-European space policy in an attempt to intensify the union's space exploitation, science and technology. Though the agreement has been under development all year long, and is based on the earlier EU space "Green Paper" -- a formal document discussing policy proposals and alternatives -- ESA has just discovered unexpected limits on its budget and mission planning that suggest more funding might be needed to achieve the desired effects.

The agreement calls for the ESA and EU to devise a new space program for Europe that will encourage both industry demand for space services and new applications for space technologies. The ESA will help build the infrastructure to develop those services and applications. The agency also is supposed to foster a series of space projects with possible direct EU participation.

In turn, under the agreement, the EU would elevate space to a higher level within its governing structure. It also would write a joint action plan with the ESA in 2004 to share responsibilities and work together.

Meanwhile, the ESA itself has imposed limits to space cooperation.

Last week, the agency's space program committee axed its long-range space probe missions. For example, it closed down a major project under development, Eddington, a probe to search for Earth-like planets and to look inside stars to gain a broader understanding of their birth and development.

"The loss of this one mission will not stop ESA and the scientific community pursuing the grand quests to which it would have contributed," the agency said in a prepared statement.

Another budget cut involved trimming a joint project with Japan to send orbiting probes and landing craft to Mercury's boiling hot realm. The BepiColombo mission, as it was called, would have launched a pair of orbiting satellites to study Mercury while a lander set down on its surface. The lander has been canceled but the twin orbiters remain scheduled.

Though the lander was expected to generate significant data, "to land on a planet so near to the sun is no small matter and was 'a bridge too far' in present circumstances," officials acknowledged.

Not all the ESA news was bad, however.

Last week, the agency placed orders for a pair of recoverable space capsules from the Russian Rosaviakosmos agency. The capsules, called Foton M2 and M3, would be launched by Russia in May 2005 and fall 2006. They will be crammed with scientific experiments, some of which will duplicate the research conducted for ESA aboard shuttle Columbia's last mission.

The Foton plan calls for experiments in biology, exobiology, materials science and physics. The capsule series first flew in 1985 and is based on the original design of the craft that carried Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961.

The Fotons follow a Russian tradition of continuous refinement of the capsule concept, which will allow the research experiments to return to Earth after the flight is over.

The ESA and EU are determined to use space to bolster Europe's universities and industries. A recent ESA estimate suggests space programs employ 40,000 people directly and another 250,000 indirectly. The agency develops and manages more than 250 million euros' worth of space contracts to European firms each year. It claims space technology spinoffs in areas from automotive airbags to skin cancer monitors and other practical, earthbound uses.

The new initiative with the EU will broaden these programs and include resource monitoring, environmental research and telecommunications satellite technology. All are highly competitive areas of applied space research and all will require sustained funding to move beyond the paper study concept.


Frank Sietzen covers space issues for UPI Science News. E-mail

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