The world's largest astronautical conference, being held this year in Bremen, has put a spotlight on Europe's ambivalent relationship with its space program.
Men on mars? Space experts asked the question.
Once a year, international space experts get together to discuss and compare current projects and study results. This year, a key focus was on the feasibility of a manned mission to Mars.
The 54th International Astronautical Congress, which ends on October 5, brings together 2,500 experts from 38 countries, including top brass from NASA and the general director of the Russian air and space agency. Some 1,200 speeches, symposia and question-and-answer sessions broach topics as diverse as the use of aerospace technology in developing countries, signs of life in the universe and the international space station, or ISS.
The hottest topic this year: is a manned trip to the red planet a utopian ideal, or an imminent reality? One thing the scientists agree on is that such a project is technologically feasible. The uses, costs and opportunities of such a trip are a subject for a number of the symposia. For instance, one discussion addresses the advances that would need to be made in telemedicine.
Life on Mars ?
Mars Express spacecraft
An unmanned European mission to the planet – the Mars-Express – left Earth in June under the aegis of ESA, the European Space Agency, and is scheduled to reach Mars in December. Its goal is to answer questions such as: was there ever water on Mars? Are there signs of life there?
The director of the German Air and Space Agency, or DLR, Berndt Feuerbacher, hopes that answering thse questions will interest more than just academics. Germans' interest in space exploration "leaves much to be desired," he says – a fact that is reflected in his agency's funding. The DLR, with some 5,000 employees, has an annual budget of approximately €1 billion a year. NASA's annual budget is more than 15 times as great.
If a mission discovered signs of life on Mars, Feuerbacher says, it would no doubt wake the public's interest. The problem with funding space exploration is that it requires very long term thinking, he notes.
Speaking at the opening of the Bremen conference, Federal Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn said she expects savings from the government's planned social reforms to free up more funding for space programs.
Big hopes for Galileo
Discoveries made in space research form the ground for economic development and create jobs, in addition to serving the good of mankind, she noted. Therefore, Europe should work hard to become a competitive and dynamic leader in the area of space exploration. She cited a recent government move that gathered various projects under one national program as a step in the right direction for Germany.
GalileoSat, the European civilian satellite-based navigation system.
While Germany's space sector suffers mainly from the financial difficulties in the telecommunications market, she said she hopes the experimental navigation satellite Galileo, to be launched in late 2004, will pump new life into German space-exploration.
SMART is ambitious
Despite its relatively small budget and short development schedule, Mars Express is one illustration of Europe's ambitions in the exploration of the solar system.
Another is the launch of the SMART-1 unmanned moon probe last weekend. The moon launch saw an Ariane rocket blast off from the Kourou launch center in French Guyana early Sunday morning, carrying an unmanned SMART 1 probe into space.
The solar-powered craft is due to reach the moon at the end of next year, a test run for later flights to the outer limits of the solar system.
The 370 kilo, €110 million probe is designed to test new types of space technology. An acronym for Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology, the SMART 1 is the first European spacecraft to be driven by solar-powered electric propulsion. Until now, rockets have been powered by fuel-burning cells. The new ion drives accelerate more slowly than chemical rockets, but they can also last years longer. The vessel’s lighter weight also offers an advantage over traditional fuel-burning rockets. It's lighter load means it is capable of carrying more scientific instruments.
ESA plans a third launch, Rosetta, is planned in February 2004, to visit comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.