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Germany

With Space Program, Europe Looks To Mars and Earth

In an interview with DW-WORLD, German Aerospace Center Chairman Sigmar Wittig discusses the Mars Express mission and what it means for the future of European space exploration.

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With the planned Christmas Day landing of the Beagle 2 probe on the surface of Mars, Europe's first mission to another planet, a new chapter will be written in the history of European space travel. But even as history is made, scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) and the national space agencies throughout the 15-member consortium are busy creating blueprints for the future of space exploration.

DW-WORLD recently sat down with Sigmar Wittig -- chairman of the board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the agency that administers Germany's space program -- to discuss the Mars Express and other major missions ESA and DLR are planning for the future.

What is the importance of the Mars Express mission for the European space program?

The scientific mission -- to see whether there is water and life on Mars -- is of utmost importance . From a German point of view, there are some instruments on Mars Express and on the Beagle 2 that are significant. There’s the High Resolution Stereo Camera, which we expect will provide us with fantastic images and pictures that will help determine what the surface of Mars looks like. This will be correlated with measurements taken off the Martian surface and subsurface, to provide a highly accurate rendering of the planet. Meanwhile, the drill, or "Mole," is a tool developed by the German Space Agency that we’re using to go underneath the surface. You can’t just draw Martian soil samples on the surface because of the influence the outer atmosphere and space have on the planet’s surface. We have to drill down almost 1.5 meters to see what the real soil looks like and, we hope, determine what it was like a million years ago. Was there life on Mars? Is or was there water?

Does this mission signal an evolution in Europe’s space program?

This mission puts us in the first class of engineering accomplishments. It also means we’ve got the highest-standard technology in many areas, including information and navigation.

Are there any commercial benefits of the mission for Germany and Europe?

The commercial aspect is not the most important one, but rather the scientific aspect. If you look at the commercial side, certainly the high-resolution camera, for example, can also be used to take pictures of other planets and of the Earth to check remote areas and provide a total view our planet useful for the purposes of continuing Earth observation. So there is a commercial aspect, but it’s not dominant.

NASA has long been admired for the technologies it has developed and later transferred to private industry? Has there been any similar technology transfer from the European Space Program or Germany’s space program?

In the German context, a large amount of technology has been transferred from our space program. Higher temperature materials developed by the space program are used in industry as well as carbon materials, which can now be found in high-speed car brakes. A lot of this came from German space research, including the work done to develop re-entry materials for the Ariane launcher program. There has also been considerable transfer in the areas of light-weight materials, navigational systems, optical systems, like our high resolution cameras, fire detection systems and robotics.

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