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ESA unveils plans for its next space missions

Europe’s next space mission will travel closer to the Sun than any previous satellite, the European Space Agency announced on 4 October.

Solar Orbiter is planned to launch from Cape Canaveral in 2017 and will gather new information on how the Sun influences the solar system environment. In particular it will be examining how the Sun generates and propels the particles, known as the solar wind, which have significant effects on the earth’s atmosphere, for example, as the cause of the aurora borealis phenomenon.

The satellite will examine the processes on the solar surface that generate the wind and will orbit close enough to the Sun to collect samples of these particles soon after they are ejected.

The satellite is one of two missions chosen by ESA as the first part of its Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 plan.

The second mission called Euclid will look outwards from the solar system to the darkest corners of the universe. It consists of a space telescope that will map out the large-scale structure of the universe with unprecedented accuracy. The observations will stretch across 10 billion light years, revealing the history of the universe’s expansion and the growth of its component structures during the last three-quarters of its history, ESA explains.

One question that the mission will attempt to answer is why the universe appears to be expanding at an ever increasing rate. Theory suggests that this acceleration is driven by a mysterious force called dark energy. By studying the behaviour of large-scale structures such as galaxies and galaxy clusters, astronomers hope to gain a better understanding of the nature of dark energy.

Bob Nichol from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, UK, will be part of the team responsible for analysing the data sent back by Euclid.

“It’s been suggested that dark energy is behind the observation made by the Hubble Space telescope that, contrary to expectations, the expansion of the universe seems to be faster now than it was billions of years ago,” he explained.

“Euclid will effectively look back in time approximately 10 billion years covering the period over which dark energy seems to have accelerated the expansion of the universe and capture the light from distant galaxies to map their distribution and reveal the underlying dark architecture of the cosmos.”

Euclid is planned for launch in 2019 from a Russian Soyuz rocket from the ESA spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration Alvaro Giménez said: “With the selection of Solar Orbiter and Euclid, the science programme has once more shown its relevance to pure science and to the concerns of citizens.”