SOHO keeps watch on our violent Sun

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Europe explores the Solar System

Europe is a world leader in space science – the study of phenomena beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. It is ESA’s programme of successful missions that has put Europe at the forefront of this area of research. Check out the range of ESA missions that are currently in space, and those that are soon to be launched.



Europe’s first deep space mission
More than 15 years ago, ESA's Giotto spacecraft made history by obtaining the first close-up pictures of a comet’s black, icy nucleus. Giotto then went on to become the first spacecraft to visit a second comet when it carried out a flyby 200 km from Comet Grigg-Skjellerup in July 1992, shortly before the spacecraft was switched off. This is still the closest encounter with a comet ever experienced by a spacecraft. Knowledge gained from the Giotto mission is currently being used to develop the Rosetta comet chaser, which is scheduled for launch in January 2003.


Mapping the Sun’s big bubble
The night sky may look peaceful, but in fact it is anything but. Earth is suspended deep inside the heliosphere, a huge bubble filled with high-energy atoms and electrons zooming out from the Sun. Launched in 1990, the Ulysses space probe entered its orbit over the Sun's poles in 1994 to take, for the first time, a closer look at this invisible, but far from friendly, phenomenon. Ulysses, which is providing the first-ever complete map of the heliosphere, has been studying the high-speed particle streams that burst from the Sun’s poles, and the slower wind that comes from near the equator.


Watching the weather on our savage Star
Violent storms raging in the Sun’s atmosphere project charged particles our way at speeds of up to 800 km/s. Earth’s own magnetic field deflects most of this ‘solar wind’, but the storms can play havoc with our electricity supplies, aircraft systems and satellite communications. SOHO is stationed 1.5 million km from Earth, on the sunny side, where it can stare at the Sun non-stop. Every day it sends back thrilling images from which research scientists learn more about the Sun's nature and behaviour, helping us predict bad space weather to come.


Saturn’s moon may resemble a baby Earth
The Huygens probe is now nearing its destination, Saturn’s moon Titan, which it will reach in 2004 on-board NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. When it gets there, Huygens will parachute through Titan’s atmosphere, penetrating for the first time the orange haze that hides its surface. Titan is the only moon in our Solar System to have such a thick atmosphere, which is thought to resemble that of a very young Earth. Huygens will be uncovering more details of the atmosphere and any further similarities.


The Cluster mission, made up of four identical satellites, was launched in 2000 to study the Sun’s effects on the Earth. The quartet is studying the outer edges of Earth’s magnetosphere, our natural protective bubble. Cluster has already confirmed that these edges are stretched and pulled in different directions by ‘big waves’ of the Sun’s particles. Cluster data will eventually help us to predict how such dramatic changes could affect Earth in the future.


Going back to the Moon using solar power
Humans may have landed on the Moon, our only natural satellite, but we still don’t know how it was created. Was it formed at the same time as Earth, or did it come from elsewhere to be captured by the Earth’s gravity? SMART-1, a technology demonstration mission due to be launched early in 2003, hopes to answer some of these questions. The spacecraft will be testing the effectiveness of solar-electric propulsion as a means of travelling through space. In addition, an impressive set of instruments on SMART-1 will allow scientists to draw up accurate 3D models of the surface, and provide information about its make-up, its origins, and those of Earth.


Getting up close and personal with a comet
If you have ever had the nightmare where a comet collides with Earth, then you will want to follow the progress of ESA’s Rosetta mission closely. In January 2003, Rosetta starts its 8-year journey to Comet Wirtanen. Rosetta will be dropping a lander on the comet, to take some key measurements of the surface and sub-surface. Comets contain raw materials left over from the birth of the Sun and the planets, so these experiments should provide clues to both the origin of the Earth and the origin of life itself. Rosetta’s data could also be important for planning our future defences against comet collisions with Earth.


Feeling hot, hot, hot
Around 2010, the Solar Orbiter will be launched on its mission to take the closest look at the Sun yet. Building on the results from ESA’s SOHO and Cluster missions, the Solar Orbiter will endure powerful bursts of atomic particles and intense sunlight to carry its telescopes to just one-fifth of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. But once it has manoeuvred into its orbit around the Sun, images from Solar Orbiter will be 10 times sharper than anything seen before. It will also be watching storms building up in the Sun’s atmosphere over several days as the orbiter hovers over a certain point.


Squeezing past the Sun to study Mercury
Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun is the destination of BepiColombo, an ESA mission in cooperation with Japan due for launch in 2011-2012. When it arrives at Mercury, the spacecraft will have to endure temperatures as high as 250oC in order to provide new information about a planet we know so little about. We need to find out more about Mercury’s composition and history, because of the light that this knowledge will throw on the history and formation of the inner planets of the Solar System, including the Earth.

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Huygens parachuting through
Titan's atmosphere
© ESA 2000








Rosetta -Europe's comet chaser
© ESA 2000


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