Question: how does Europe decide its space exploration strategy?
Answer: by a series of stake-holder meetings.
So it is that I find myself in Athens with ninety other planetary and space scientists, invited to a discussion organised by the European Science Foundation to advise the European Space Agency (ESA) on the science aspects for its Solar System Exploration Programme. Because, for ESA although not for the UK, exploration’ ultimately means human exploration, our brief is limited to places where we can get humans to (and back again!) within the next thirty years or so. Because the most exciting and profound questions that can be answered concern the existence of life on other worlds, the goal for now is Mars. You might think that these two considerations would make our ‘road map’ clear, but not so. It has taken a lot of hard talking to settle on the extent to which the Moon should be used as a stepping stone to Mars.
There is some great science to be done on the Moon, but few would say that the Moon has more to teach us than Mars. However, the Moon is the obvious place to develop techniques of sample collection and return, and to gain experience of long-duration human missions in low gravity. Add to this the ‘realpolitik’ element that the Chinese will soon be on the Moon, and therefore so will NASA, then it seems (to me at least) clear that ESA’s political paymasters will decree that Europe should have a lunar presence too (whether independent or co-operative remains to be seen) so we should plan to make the most of the science opportunities that this will open up.
Near-Earth asteroids are likely targets too. Some contain ‘primitive’ material unaltered since the birth of the Solar System, and we badly need to analyse their organic and volatile components untainted by the contamination that is inevitable when a chunk is collected on the Earth’s surface in the form of a meteorite.
Athens is now a very easy city to visit. The metro (built for the Olympics) gets you from the airport to the city centre in half an hour. It only costs 12 euros to visit the Acropolis, where the museum abounds in statues of horsemen, which surprised me as I had always been led to believe that there were only four Horsemen of the Acropolis. The local organisers arranged a super evening meal for us the yard of a nearby taverna, and one of the highlights of the trip for me was convincing a young engineer that the brilliant white star that we could see hanging low over the Parthenon really was the planet Venus. We found Saturn for her later, and now she’s recognised them with her own eyes she seems more determined than ever to build tools and devices that can go to such places and teach us what we need to know about our cosmic birthplace.