Current opportunities in ESA’s scientific space missions

The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently preparing several scientific space missions within its Science Programme – small missions (“S”), medium-class missions (“M”), large missions (“L”) and so-called “Missions of Opportunity”, a tool through which the ESA’s Science Programme can implement a relatively small, non-enabling participation in a partner-led mission. The budget for medium-class “M” missions is 500 million EUR, large “L” missions 1 billion EUR and 50 million EUR for S-class missions (excluding costs of scientific payload).

Participation in these missions is also an opportunity for Czech scientists. Usually, the condition for participation in the mission scientific consortia is providing part of scientific payload or other necessary scientific equipment (e.g. ground segment or software). Participation in instrumentation projects can be funded through the ESA PRODEX programme, which is funded by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.

At present, it is possible to participate in the following missions:

ARIEL (the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) is next medium-class mission „M4“, selected in March 2018. The infrared observatory ARIEL will study a diverse sample of about 1000 extrasolar planets, simultaneously in visible and infrared wavelengths. It is the first mission dedicated to measuring the chemical composition and thermal structures of hundreds of transiting exoplanets, enabling planetary science far beyond the boundaries of the Solar System. Launch of the mission is planned for 2028.

There are currently 3 candidate missions for the M5 slot in study phase – Theseus, Spica and EnVision. Final decision is expected in 2021, with a planned launch date in 2032.

  • EnVision follows on from ESA’s successful Venus Express that focused primarily on atmospheric research. Planned to be implemented with NASA participation, next-generation EnVision would determine the nature and current state of geological activity on Venus and its relationship with the atmosphere. It would map the surface and obtain detailed radar images, improving on those obtained by NASA’s Magellan in the 1990s to provide greater insight into the geological evolution of the surface.
  • THESEUS (Transient High Energy Sky and Early Universe Surveyor) is a novel mission to monitor transient events in the high-energy Universe across the whole sky and over the entirety of cosmic history. In particular, it promises to make a complete census of gamma-ray bursts from the Universe’s first billion years, to help shed light on the life cycle of the first stars.
  •  SPICA (SPace Infrared telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics), a joint European-Japanese project that offers significant improvement in far-infrared spectroscopic and survey capabilities over NASA’s Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel space observatories, would ensure continuing advances can be made in this field. Understanding the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars, planets and life itself is a fundamental objective of astronomy. These topics can be explored with a sensitive infrared survey, peering through the clouds of dust that typically obscure the sites of star birth.

ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics) is next large, flagship mission of ESA’s Science Programme, currently in study phase („L2“ mission). Large X-ray observatory ATHENA will address key questions in astrophysics, including: how and why does ordinary matter assemble into the galaxies and galactic clusters that we see today? How do black holes grow and influence their surroundings? The planned lunch is in 2028.

LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is the following large, flagship mission of ESA’s Science Programme, currently in study phase („L3“ mission), which is now in study phase. Three craft, separated by 2.5 million km in a triangular formation, will form the first space-based gravitational wave observatory. Following selection, the mission design and costing can be completed. Then it will be proposed for ‘adoption’ before construction begins. Launch is expected in 2034.

Czech scientist can also participate in 3 “Missions of Opportunity”, which offers ESA a flexible tool to participate in missions from partner agencies and which are currently prepared. These are XRISM (X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, cooperation with JAXA), Einstein Probe (cooperation with Chinese Academy of Sciences) and MMX (Martian Moons Exploration, cooperation with JAXA).

Further details on the optional ESA PRODEX program can be found on the websites of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. Should you have any questions about how to join these missions and ESA PRODEX, please contact Mr Ondřej Novák from the Department of Research and Development of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, who is also representative of the Czech Republic in the ESA Science Programme Committee.