content 24-November-2017 04:43:49

European explorers in the Solar System

Following in the footsteps of our ancestors

In the 15th century, Europeans began to explore beyond their known frontiers, searching for wealth, trading routes and allies to expand their economic and political power. The encounters with new people, and the discovery of new countries, have had a lasting impact on Europe, and on her relations with the rest of the world.

The dawn of the space age brought new meaning to the word 'exploration'; today we explore other worlds to better understand our own planet and our place in the Universe.

Europe in the Solar System

Since its inception in 1975, ESA has shown, through the successful development, launch and operation of ground-breaking missions, that Europe has the industrial, technological and scientific capabilities to be a leader and key partner in international science programmes.

In the field of Solar System exploration, Europe is at the forefront of scientific discoveries and has provided the international scientific community with a number of unique opportunities, including the first close encounter with a comet (Comet Halley in 1986) - with Giotto; the first in situ study of Saturn's moon, Titan - with Huygens; the discovery of methane and ice on Mars - with Mars Express; the investigation of the peaks of eternal light on the Moon - with SMART-1; and new insights into the dramatic greenhouse effect on Venus - with Venus Express.

More recently, ESA's Rosetta comet chaser completed a 10-year journey to arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In November 2014, Rosetta deployed the Philae lander to the surface of the comet. Since then, the orbiter has been accompanying the comet along its orbit, investigating the comet surface, coma and tail.  BepiColombo is preparing for a 6-year journey to reach Mercury, the only terrestrial planet yet to be visited by a European spacecraft, and Jupiter and its icy moons are the destination for JUICE.

We are now able to investigate the composition of planetary atmospheres and to study the geological history of planet surfaces. This is particularly important at a time in which the exploration of the Solar System is expanding to encompass new research fields such as exobiology - the study of the origin, evolution and diffusion of life – in a quest to understand the conditions leading to the creation of planets and the emergence of life.

Missions to Mars – International Cooperation

As early as 1963, European scientists began to develop ideas for the study of Mars by spacecraft, building on experience from terrestrial, lunar and astronomical research. Several proposals and studies were made over the following decade, in the framework of ESA's precursor, ESRO (European Space Research Organisation). Possibilities for ESA-led Mars missions were studied, from the early 1980s onwards. In parallel, European countries have participated in Soviet and American Mars exploration programmes, through scientific collaboration and the contribution of instrumentation. This began with French experiments on the Soviet Mars missions launched in 1971 and 1973. Instrumentation from several European countries was carried on the Phobos missions of 1988 and on the Mars 96 mission. European experiments or other hardware have flown on almost all of NASA's Mars orbiters, landers and rovers since 1992. Japan's Nozomi Mars mission in 1998 also included instruments from Europe.

Mars Express paves the way for future missions to Mars

Mars Express maps the entire surface of the planet. Credit: ESA

Initiated following the loss of Mars 96, Mars Express was the first ESA-led mission to the Red Planet. Although the Beagle 2 lander was lost at Mars, the orbiter has yielded world-class scientific data since its arrival in December 2003. The state-of-the-art instruments on board the Mars Express spacecraft are providing unique views of the planet and its environment.

The High Resolution Stereo Camera, HRSC, produces spectacular 3D colour views of the Martian surface. It has provided evidence for ice at the poles and underground deposits of permafrost, and it has also revealed several cone formations, resembling volcanoes, in the Northern Plain region, which by analogy with terrestrial environments may bear life.

The OMEGA spectrometer is mapping the mineralogical content of the Martian surface, thus confirming the presence of past Martian oceans by the identification of clays; and the MARSIS radar is exploring beneath the subsurface, searching for traces of life. The Planetary Fourier Spectrometer, PFS, is investigating the atmosphere on Mars and has detected not only carbon monoxide and water vapour, but also methane, a possible bio-marker. The images and maps produced by Mars Express cover nearly the entire planet and will remain unique for a long-time as future missions will only be dealing with localised analysis. Future interpretations, as well as future exploration activities, will be based on these global data.

From remote observation to in situ exploration

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
ESA, in partnership with Roscosmos, has now embarked on an ambitious long-term robotic exploration programme. An ESA-led orbiter - the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter - capable of tracing methane in the Martian atmosphere, was launched on 14 March 2016 and is scheduled to arrive at Mars in October 2014. It will be followed by the Agency's flagship ExoMars rover, in 2020. ExoMars will have the ability to drill up to 2 metres beneath the Martian surface searching for chemical evidence that might have been preserved from solar radiation. This will be a first for any Mars rover.

ExoMars will open a new era for Europe: we will pass from remote observation to surface exploration of Mars. In preparation, scientists are carrying out a variety of Earth-based preparatory activities in environments similar to Mars with a view to testing instruments for future rover missions.

The international space exploration venture has arrived at a turning point in its history, and Europe has the opportunity to be a key player in one of the greatest undertakings of this century.


Last Update: 02 May 2016

For further information please contact: RoboticExploration@esa.int

Related Links