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The future of European space travel

On the International Space Station, observing the Earth, exploring Mars: Germany and Europe are closely involved in current developments in space research. Will we soon see manned flights to the Moon again - or beyond?

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have big plans for 2013. For the scientists there, the forthcoming launch of new satellites for the European navigation system "Galileo" and commercial communication satellites is almost routine. Far more exciting for them are the numerous space probes and Earth observation systems which will enable researchers at both institutions to gaze into the depths of the universe, and better understand our own planet.

There's a lot the researchers can learn about Earth from space. The ESA will soon be launching several Earth observation satellites. The small cube-satellite Proba-V, for example, will track developments in the plant world. The SWARM mission, comprising three house-sized satellites able to look deep beneath the Earth's crust, will observe changes in the Earth's magnetic fields.

Artist's impression of the Proba-V satellite in a low orbit above the Earth. Copyright ESA–P. Carril, 2012

The vegetation monitoring satellite Proba-V weighs only 160 kilograms

The International Space Station is also an important research center. It circles Earth at an altitude of 360 to 400 kilometers (223–248 miles), giving scientists the opportunity to experience zero gravity and obtain a special view of the planet.

New generation of space travel

In mid-June 2013 the European space shuttle, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), will be launched for the penultimate time to take supplies to the ISS. The US space agency NASA discontinued its space shuttle program three years ago. Once the last ATV is launched in 2014, only Russian Soyuz space capsules and private spacecraft will still be operational for the transport of astronauts and cargo. For the ESA and the DLR, that's reason enough to continue to develop the ATV - this time in conjunction with the Americans. The new model, called ORION, will transport not only goods, but also people.

"This cooperation with NASA is something very special," says Thomas Reiter, former astronaut and current director of Human Spaceflight Operations at the ESA, in an interview with DW, "because it is the first time we, together with NASA, are actually playing a role in a critical field of the development of manned transport systems."

The ESA controls the central drive module for the space capsules. This includes life-support systems such as the controls for the temperature and air supply. What Reiter finds particularly exciting about the collaboration is that the system won't just fly to the ISS. Its remit is much wider: The first two test flights will travel around the Moon.

Research for knowledge

There are currently no plans in either the US or Europe for manned missions to the Moon, or to Mars. But the development of the ORION Capsule is just one of many small steps that will enable humans to explore the universe, says Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Chairman of the DLR, in an interview with DW. "Man, in his boundless curiosity, which he has at least while he is young, is determined to explore distant worlds," says Wörner. Scientists, he adds, simply maintain this curiosity well into later life.

Proposal for MPCV-SM
Copyright ESA-D. Ducros, 2012

The transport capsule for the ORION support system is being developed by the ESA

According to Wörner, it is above all those scientific missions which are not - or not initially - focussed on commercial gain that tend to bring back surprising results which then prove to be of great use to mankind. It's thanks to research at the ISS that medical science now knows a lot more about the immune system, or the salt content of the body. Space travel has turned humans into the subjects of research.

This is also one reason why the DLR is currently building a new medical research center in Cologne, Germany. The Environment Habitat Laboratory (ENVIHAB) will examine the effects of environmental conditions on the human body. The researchers are interested in more than just long stays away from Earth, such as a voyage to Mars: They will also be looking at problems closer to home. ENVIHAB could, for example, conduct sleep studies to explore the effects of noise on the body. "We could also study the effect on humans of long-haul flights with reduced air pressure," says Wörner.

Self-disposing rockets

Thomas Reiter, director of Human Spaceflight Operations at the ESA. Photo: Arne Dedert dpa/lhe

Thomas Reiter of the ESA is excited about the cooperation with NASA

The DLR is not only involved in the space capsule project, but also in the development of European carrier rockets. Germany is providing financial support for the further development of the ARIANE 5 launcher. The ARIANE 5 ME will have a greater loading capacity. "Above all," says Wörner, "it will also be able to decelerate its upper stage so that it burns up on reentry into the Earth's atmosphere."

This will help to reduce space debris. 16,000 known objects more than a centimeter across are already circling the Earth at speeds of up to 28,000 kilometers per hour. All this space debris has the potential to cause serious damage to satellites, or even to the ISS itself.

To try to make sure this doesn't happen, the DLR has initiated the German Orbital Servicing Mission (DEOS), a kind of orbiting service station and garbage truck for satellites. The DEOS module is designed to capture satellites whose propulsion engines have failed. "If they can be repaired," explains Thomas Reiter from the ESA, "they can then be put back into orbit. Alternatively, they can either be brought down to the lower levels of the Earth's atmosphere in a controlled crash, or taken in the other direction - to a safe orbit far away from Earth, where they won't bother anyone."