In October 2005, the European Space Agency came up with a fancy brochure. The cover featured a fresco painted by the famous Renaissance Italian painter, Raffaello Sanzio. A 'small' modification was made to the original artwork: skilful graphic artists replaced the original globe with a high-resolution image of Mars. This altered composition was a faithful expression of ESA's intention: the focus of the Cosmic Vision programme was no longer on our planet, but on distant celestial objects and targets. The bold plans to be implemented between 2015 and 2025 have since been accepted and are now well on their way to becoming reality.
Cosmic Vision Programme: Europe in space
The development of space exploration is not an end in itself: homo sapiens has always looked to the stars for answers, planning long journeys and achieving great discoveries. We defined ourselves early on as a space species and imagined ourselves travelling to distant galaxies. The reality, of course, requires a 'back to Earth' approach. This is no coincidence since from an engineering point of view the challenges of space science are immense and only the right distribution of resources can guarantee realistic goals.
For ESA too, forward-thinking and resource assessment is essential, as they have been in the planning of previous large-scale projects, Horizon and Horizon 2000 Plus. When Cosmic Vision was launched, the idea was that the scientific community itself should identify the main goals and realistic objectives. Following the call for proposals in 2004, almost 151 ideas were received, and the first selection was made at a workshop in Paris in September of the same year. From the 151 ideas, a list of items was selected, which formed the backbone of ESA's Cosmic Vision programme.
Cosmic Vision Programme: the key issues
The official programme, known in full as Cosmic Vision 2015-2025, focuses on four questions:
- What are the conditions for the formation of planets and life?
- How does the solar system work?
- What are the fundamental physical laws of the Universe?
- How did the Universe come into being and what is it made of?
These key themes lead to the development of further sub-themes, so there is real scope for defining the areas of research that build on them.
Cosmic Vision Programme: long-term projects
Although ESA's annual budget may seem large at first glance, it cannot be compared to the financial opportunities of NASA. So, spending European taxpayers' money should be done with care. What is behind the long-term planning processes, which meant 20 years when Cosmic Vision was announced?
Firstly, space exploration is not a short-term activity. It can take years or even decades to design a major space project. Secondly, ESA brings together experts and institutions from different European countries, and cooperative, cross-border work requires longer time horizons. The date in the name of the Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 is therefore not a dream, but a reflection of reality.
This will lead to longer-term planning to deliver Europe-related space science results that will excite the scientific world and the public too.
The European scientific community has been involved in all important aspects of the Cosmic Vision planning and campaign, from the selection of the themes to the planning of the missions.
Cosmic Vision Programme: the early bird
Cosmic Vision's first voted mission is JUICE (JUpiter ICy Moons Explorer). In a showcase of European cooperation, Airbus Defence and Space will develop a spacecraft destined for Jupiter's three exciting moons. Expected to be launched from the Guyana Space Centre in April 2023, it will orbit Ganymede after an eight-year journey - the first vehicle in human history to orbit a moon other than ours. Like the other two targeted celestial bodies, Callisto and Europa may also hide oceans beneath their icy shells, there is hope that JUICE's instruments may detect signs of life. In any case, a range of measurements will be used to map the parameters of these three planets in what is already a historic mission.
The magnitudes of the Cosmic Vision projects
There are differences between vision and vision, budget and budget. For this reason, the various missions are divided into three broad categories:
- S (small) missions of up to €50 million,
- M (medium), which can reach but not exceed €500 million, and
- L missions are capped at €900 million (this category also includes JUICE).
What is the next step in the Cosmic Vision programme?
Meanwhile, planning for the second approved mission has also started. This is EnVision, focusing on a nearby planet, Venus, which has been 'neglected' for decades. One of its aims is to map the evolutionary differences between Earth and Venus, and an interesting question that needs to be answered: could life have once existed on the most inhospitable planet surface we know today?
Another exciting project is ARIEL (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey), which has been given the green light under Cosmic Vision. At the heart of this L-class mission is a space-based instrument that will observe nearly 1000 exoplanets to study their structure. ARIEL is scheduled for launch in 2028.
A Hungarian device in space
Cosmic Vision would not be complete without the participation of Hungarian experts, scientists, and engineers. The background to our participation in the creation of a so-called F, or Fast-class, within the M-class missions. These complement certain M-class missions, where speed is one of the most important factors. Specifically, the implementation time from selection to completion of the development is limited to 8 years.
The first F-class mission is the Comet Interceptor. It will consist of three space probes and will be the first to visit a comet or other interstellar object making simultaneous observations of the object as it approaches Earth's orbit. It then creates a 3D profile, which is in effect a view of the remnants of the dawn of the Solar System.
At REMRED, we are particularly excited given this is the point where we step into the Cosmic Vision Programme. Our experts and engineers are currently developing a digital image processing system that will be an important part of the Comet Interceptor. It will be responsible for image acquisition, storage, processing, and direct interaction with the spacecraft.
REMRED will deliver the high-quality equipment to which it is accustomed and will further enhance the reputation of Hungarian space activity.