Don’t look now, but Europe is in outer space

Feats of European Aerospace


Op-Ed Contributor


by Michael Benson


LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Predictably enough, the first flight of Airbus’s elephantine double-decker A380 “super-jumbo” was a major media event. But the continent’s recent achievements in the skies of other planets have been relatively unsung, although they provide clear evidence of a startlingly ambitious and vital new European capability – that of roaming across the solar system and studying its worlds.

Robotic spaceflight makes even the most daring conventional aviation look easy. It’s notoriously unforgiving of even the smallest mistakes. Mars in particular has been a problematic destination, with the vast majority of spacecraft sent there during the past four decades failing either before or on arrival.

So the success of Europe’s first interplanetary mission, Mars Express, which arrived safely in orbit of the Red Planet on Dec. 25, 2003, was certainly no given. And yet the spacecraft has been sending a steady stream of revelatory information from Mars for the last 20 months and looks set to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Among other things, Europe’s orbiter possesses a revolutionary stereo color camera system, which in early 2005 revealed what appears to be the dust-covered surface of a frozen Martian sea – one that may have been liquid only a few million years ago, which is very recently in geological terms.

Another tantalizing recent finding is being interpreted by some scientists as potential evidence of life there: the European spacecraft’s spectrometer discovered trace quantities of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

One possible source could be sub-surface organic activity. If so, it would have to be contemporary, because methane breaks down rapidly in sunlight, and therefore must have been vented into the atmosphere relatively recently. (The methane could also have been produced by non-biological processes; while this is a major step forward in Mars studies, it’s not yet confirmation of extraterrestrial life.)

Despite these undeniable successes, Mars Express’s achievements are almost entirely unknown to the public. Instead, it remembers the much-publicized failure of its tiny, British-built Beagle lander, which vanished without a trace when it plunged into the Martian atmosphere in 2003. But Beagle was a relatively small part of the mission, and its failure should not have overshadowed the fact that Europe’s first interplanetary spacecraft is operating flawlessly.

Another recent European space triumph – which did receive media coverage earlier this year – was the landing of ESA’s atmospheric probe, Huygens, on Saturn’s cloud-covered moon Titan. Like the Airbus A380 and Mars Express, Huygens was designed and built by a multilingual consortium of aerospace companies from across the continent.

It was the first landing on the moon of another planet, and because the nature of Titan’s surface was almost entirely unknown, it was also certainly one of the most daunting engineering challenges in the history of space exploration. The spacecraft functioned flawlessly, providing images and other data about this planet-sized world.

One reason why such achievements have received relatively little attention is that aerospace is by its very nature a multinational effort, whereas most European media remains largely focused on their own narrow national context.

Space exploration, after all, is a highly complex story and resistant to simplification, even if it also reveals unprecedented inter-European cooperation in the field of science and high technology.

Another reason for the lack of public awareness is that ESA’s public relations efforts largely lack the sophistication of NASA, the American space agency.

Although Mars Express daily sends large quantities of some of the best panoramic color pictures ever taken of another world back to Earth, ESAs only posts new ones on its Web site intermittently, and then at a comparatively low resolution.

Another current ESA mission, the SMART-1 lunar orbiter, is virtually invisible. Although it reached the Moon last November, ESA has posted only a miserly five pictures from the spacecraft.

By contrast, NASA immediately puts every shot taken by its two still-active Mars rovers on the internet, at their full resolution.

The result, of course, is that virtually no Europeans are aware that their continent – the birthplace of such space visionaries as Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Potocnik Noordung – has finally flown its own spacecraft to the moon, Mars and a distant Saturnian moon.

These failings in outreach should not be difficult to rectify. For now, they should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Europe has become a spacefaring civilization, with an aerospace industry that has very much come of age.

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