Spaceship for Venus, satellite to study asteroid Apophis: Europe announces 11 new missions

The European Space Agency on Thursday announced 11 new ideas to go deeper into space from the atmosphere of Venus to the surface of Mars. The ideas have been selected from over 200 submissions to include innovative concepts to explore the region beyond Earth.

The agency said that the 11 activities cover an exciting range of innovative concepts from meeting our energy needs on Earth with satellites that generate solar power in space to developing a new method of entering orbit around the Moon. The ideas will be put to the conceptual and design stage with funding from the industry.

“This was the first-ever attempt to solicit ideas for new missions across all space activities from not only the industry but also academia and the public. “It was a completely public, open forum that aimed to get several proposals for new space missions that ESA could analyse in parallel. It’s safe to say that we have achieved this goal!” said ESA’s Moritz Fontaine, who was part of the team that ran the call for ideas.

The ideas are based on 13 requirements laid out by the ESA that called for concepts on the development of a new propulsion system in very low-Earth orbit, next-generation space debris mission, long-distance inter-satellite communication, preparing human interplanetary travel, arriving on Mars, lunar landing site mapping among others.

This image shows a space solar power demonstrator called Space Option Star (SOS), one of the 47 ideas selected from over 200 submitted. (Photo: ESA)

“By encouraging the wider community to drive decisions about future space missions, this call for ideas is ensuring that ESA’s future activities remain relevant to the European space sector,” Leopold Summerer, head of ESA’s Advanced Concepts and Studies Office said adding one focus of Agenda 2025 is to stimulate commercialisation and disruptive innovation in Europe.

WHAT ARE THE NEW MISSION ANNOUNCED BY ESA?

The new missions include an idea to generate space-based solar power for terrestrial energy needs along with a space-based data centre that would offer data storage and processing capabilities.

To address the growing concerns around space debris, Europe will investigate the feasibility of sending up a small satellite with a huge foil to get a better idea of how much microparticle debris is orbiting Earth. The agency also announced plans to develop a self-contained biological system that can provide everything humans would need on a long interplanetary mission like one proposed to Mars. The self-sufficient ecosystem would be based on algae and bacteria, and the radiation could be blocked by ‘extremophile’ radiation-resistant organisms.

The agency will also identify the technology developments required for a mission that demonstrates the concept of ‘aerocapture’ putting a spacecraft into orbit around Mars by using the red planet’s atmosphere as a brake. Europe also announced plans for the Moon as it will develop a small lunar orbiter to map permanently shadowed regions by use of artificial illumination.

A vacuum airship for exploring Venus’ atmosphere. This lighter-than-air vehicle would demonstrate novel technologies, as well as acting as a long-term scientific base and a valuable infrastructure platform. (Photo: ESA)

A high-resolution lunar mineralogy mapper will image the entire lunar surface to look for resources that could be used in the future.

Meanwhile, Europe’s Concurrent Design Facility (CDF) will start planning a technology demonstrator that could float in Venus’ atmosphere, hosting payloads to analyse the planet’s atmosphere and in particular the greenhouse effect. The agency has already announced a mission for Venus in the new decade.

The agency also plans to study the asteroid Apophis that will fly past Earth at a distance of only 30,000 kilometres on April 13, 2029.