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Europeans following up on Titan triumph

Titan wasn’t enough for Europe. Now it has plans to explore Venus, Mars and a comet so distant it will take a decade to reach.
Controllers monitor computer screens at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, during the Huygens probe's descent to Titan.Arne Dedert / EPA via Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

Titan wasn’t enough for Europe. Now it has plans to explore Venus, Mars and a comet so distant it will take a decade to reach.

After decades of running third in space headlines behind the U.S. and Soviet-Russian programs, the 15-country European Space Agency last week captured center stage with the successful landing of the Huygens probe on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, after a seven-year voyage.

The Titan mission, operated in cooperation with NASA, crowned a string of successes over the past year: sending an orbiter to photograph the surface of Mars, flying a spacecraft into lunar orbit with an innovative ion propulsion system and the launch in March of the probe to the comet.

“What we’re seeing is a flowering, maturing of their planetary exploration capabilities,” said Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Their new stuff is every bit as good as the stuff the U.S. is coming up with.”

Full interplanetary pipeline
Pictures from Huygens showing what appeared to be streambeds carved by fluid and the shoreline of a lake of liquid methane had ESA officials and scientists clinking glasses of champagne Friday over the first spacecraft landing on a moon other than Earth’s.

And their mission pipeline is far from empty.

In the coming year, the Europeans will launch their Venus Express craft, to study the composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Long-term plans for the agency, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, include two flagship missions to Mars — ExoMars would land a rover on the planet, and Mars Sample Return would bring back half a pound (a quarter of a kilogram) of the Martian surface.

The Europeans hope to carry out the Mars missions in 2009 and 2011-2014, respectively, with a budget of $54 million earmarked in 2005-2006 for those probes and other projects to explore the solar system.

The first of four satellites for the Galileo navigation system, comparable to the U.S. Global Positioning System, is slated for launch in November. Galileo represents what ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina calls the agency’s “main objective” — technology that brings something concrete to the average taxpayer.

“Of course we don’t forget space science, which is the backbone of our being, but we do give priority to things that benefit the European citizen,” Bonacina said in a telephone interview from Paris.

European-Russian deal
In further broadening of efforts, Russian space officials signed a deal Wednesday with the European Space Agency that envisages long-term cooperation in commercial space launches and design of new rockets and spacecraft.

The agreement includes terms for cooperation in planned launches of Russian Soyuz rockets from France’s Kourou launch pad in French Guyana starting in 2007.

For the moment, though, ESA is basking in the glow of their recent streak of successes, which began with photographs from the Mars Express craft showing what ESA scientists said was the most direct evidence yet of water in the form of ice on the Red Planet.

Although the British-built Beagle 2 lander was lost without a trace, the Mars Express orbiter performed flawlessly, delivering detailed images of the Martian surface.

SMART 1 — ESA’s first ever mission to Earth’s moon — tested a fuel-efficient, low-thrust propulsion system and navigational software that lets ground controllers know the exact location of a craft in space. It reached lunar orbit in November, where it is busy photographing the lunar poles and using an X-ray camera to provide advanced maps of the surface.

In March, the agency launched its Rosetta craft on a 10-year journey to land on a distant comet, where it will search for clues about the birth of our solar system and life here on Earth.

More information gathered
One of the main benefits of ESA’s growing interest in exploration, scientists say, is the increase in the amount of information gathered.

Unlike the days of the Cold War when space exploration served as a battleground for superiority between the United States and the Soviet Union, the European and U.S. missions complement one another. The Cassini-Huygens mission — where ESA’s probe “hitchhiked” on the back of NASA’s orbiter — is only the most recent example.

“You have to pick and choose and to that extent they are doing complementary things (to NASA) and that’s a good thing,” said Spudis.

“We’ve always had an agreement to share data, and that way everybody wins.”