Archive for ESA

Can SpaceX save Euclid?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2022 by telescoper

A little over a month ago I posted a piece about the European Space Agency’s Euclid Mission which had been due to be launched in 2023 on a Soyuz ST 2-1b rocket. That no longer being possible because of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed there would be a lengthy delay in the launch of Euclid, with late 2024 seeming the earliest feasible date for launch on the obvious alternative, the new Ariane 6.

I ended that piece with this:

It seems to me that the best hope for a resolution of this problem would be for ESA to permit the launch of Euclid using something other than Ariane 6, which means using a vehicle supplied by an independent commercial operator. I sincerely hope ESA is able to come up with an imaginative solution to this very serious problem.

In the Dark, 17th June

I have heard various rumours since then but yesterday I saw a piece by Paris-based astronomer Henry Joy McCracken (a famous name in Ireland) that reveals that a proposal is being actively investigated to launch Euclid on a Falcon 9 rocket operated by Elon Musk’s outfit SpaceX. If all goes well it might be possible to launch Euclid by the end of 2023, and at a fraction of the cost of the alternative Ariane 6-2.

Setting aside any personal opinions about Elon Musk, the Falcon 9 has proved to be very reliable, with the latest version having 110 out of 110 successful launches. Euclid will not be in an Earth orbit, like most of the satellites so far launched by SpaceX, but has to be delivered to the 2nd Lagrange Point, L2. That should not pose to much of a difficulty.

As far as I understand it the decision whether or not this is feasible will be taken later this year after extensive engineering tests, especially to see how Euclid can cope with the spectrum of vibrations generated by Falcon 9. There’s no guarantee this will work out but it might just save a lot of money and a lot of careers.

The First Deep Field from JWST

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2022 by telescoper

I have to say that I didn’t stay up to watch the live stream of last night’s preview of this afternoon’s release of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It started very late and I got sick of listening to the dreary music on the feed so went to bed. Nevertheless here is the first picture:

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

This is a deep field image taken using JWST’s NIRCAM (Near-Infrared Camera). Note that the artifacts you see around some objects are diffraction spikes which occur around bright sources; their six-fold symmetry reflects the hexagonal structure built into the JWST’s mirror assembly. Sources sufficiently bright and compact enough to cause these spikes in deep field images are foreground stars: the extended, fainter objects are all much more distant galaxies.

The description from the NASA page is:

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.

Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.

This deep field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks. 

The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it. Webb’s NIRCam has brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus – they have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features. Researchers will soon begin to learn more about the galaxies’ masses, ages, histories, and compositions, as Webb seeks the earliest galaxies in the universe

Here is a close-up of one of the distorted galaxy images and othe features produced by gravitational lensing:

We’re having a special viewing in Maynooth this afternoon of the press conference which will unveil more new images from JWST – nice telescope, shame about the name. I may add comments on here if anything particularly exciting turns up. You can watch it here:

Let’s hope this one starts on time!

Our Solar Neighbourhood

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 3, 2020 by telescoper

Here’s a very nice movie showing the stars in the Solar neighbourhood (defined to be within 100 parsecs of the Sun) with positions and colours mapped by the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission.

P.S. The video is timed to coincide with Gaia’s third data release: for more information about DR3 see here.

The Comet – The Video!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 14, 2019 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this remarkable video about the rendezvous and subsequent landing of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P. You can find a few posts I did about this at the time (2014) here. Here’s one of the memorable from one of those posts:


Anyway, after the end of the mission, in 2017, the European Space Agency released over 400,000 images from Rosetta, based on which Christian Stangl and Wolfgang Stangl worked together to create this short film. The sequences are digitally-enhanced versions of real pictures taken by the Rosetta Probe and they’re stunning!

BepiColombo goes to Mercury

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 24, 2018 by telescoper

You may have missed the news that the joint Japanese-European (JAXA-ESA) Mission BepiColombo was successfully launched on October 19th 2018 and is now on its way to the planet Mercury, where it will arrive in December 2025.

As it happens I’ve just finished delivering a set of lectures on gravitational dynamics, part of which was devoted to orbital mechanics. One of the problems I worked out during these lectures was the Hohmann Transfer Orbit which is the simplest way to get a spacecraft from Earth to, e.g., Mars (which take 8 to 9 months to reach).

Since the radius of Mercury’s orbit is 0.39 AU (compared with Mars’s 1.52 AU) you might think it would take a similar time to reach Mercury, but designing a trajectory that results in a controlled encounter with Mercury in an efficient manner is much harder than for Mars (largely because Mercury is moving much faster). The solution to this problem involves a series of encounters with VEarth, Venus and Mercury each of which results in an adjustment to BepiColombo’s orbit until it finally encounters the target planet at a reasonable speed. This approach takes over seven years, but it saves an enormous amount on fuel – using the gravitational boost from planetary encounters instead of firing rockets.

Here’s a video showing this complex but fascinating example of orbital mechanics in action:

p.s. the dates in the video correspond to the originally planned launch date of 5th October, so are off by a couple of weeks.

Ariel to Fly

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 23, 2018 by telescoper

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure. Be ‘t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.

The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2.

It’s nice to be able to pass on a bit of good news for the good folk of the Astronomy Instrumentation Group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

The ARIEL mission has been given the green light by the European Space Agency and will launch sometime around 2028. It will produce the first ever large-scale survey of the atmospheric chemistry of planets outside our solar system. Ariel will extract the chemical fingerprints of the gases in the atmospheres of over 1000 exoplanets, as well as capturing information about the temperatures and pressures in their atmospheres and the presence of clouds.

Whenever I read of exciting news from the field of exoplanet research – which happens quite frequently nowadays – it reminds me that when I started my graduate studies (in 1985) the field didn’t really exist. Now it’s one of the biggest and most active areas of astronomy! Another thing that makes me feel a bit of a dinosaur is that when Ariel actually launches I’ll be 65…

As with all such missions, a large international collaboration will be involved in Ariel, and much of the detail of who will do what is yet to be worked out, but Cardiff scientists will be providing detailed computer simulations of the Ariel satellite and its instruments, ensuring that the scientific observations can be carefully planned and the resulting data can be analysed correctly. The team will also be involved in the ground segment after launch, interpreting the data from the observations to characterise the atmospheres of the exoplanets. The Principal Investigator of the whole mission is Professor Giovanna Tinetti of University College, London, who I see regularly at dinner with the RAS Club.

Head Irishman of the School, Matt Griffin, who will himself is quoted in the news item as saying

The decision to select the Ariel mission demonstrates the scientific vision and ambition of ESA, and it’s the start of a great adventure for everyone involved. This is a mission that will hugely advance our understanding of the nature of planets and of our place in the Universe, and at Cardiff we are very much looking forward to our participation in the project.

The launch date of 2028 is some way off but space missions are exceedingly complicated things and there’s a lot to do in the next decade or so until Ariel finally flies. Hopefully neither swimming, nor diving into fire nor riding on the curled clouds will be involved, but the scientific quality is something of which we can be very confident.

Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this mission selected and best wishes to all those involved in Cardiff and elsewhere!

LISA gets the go-ahead!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by telescoper

Just taking a short break from examining duties to pass on the news that the European Space Agency has selected the Laser Interferometric Space Experiment (LISA) – a gravitational wave experiment in space – for its large mission L3. This follows the detection of gravitational waves using the ground-based experiment Advanced LIGO and the success of a space-based technology demonstrator mission called Lisa Pathfinder.

LISA consists of a flotilla of three spacecraft in orbit around the Sun forming the arms of an interferometer with baselines of the order of 2.5 million kilometres, much longer than the ~1km arms of Advanced LIGO. These larger dimensions make LISA much more sensitive to long-period signals. Each of the LISA spacecraft contains two telescopes, two lasers and two test masses, arranged in two optical assemblies pointed at the other two spacecraft. This forms Michelson-like interferometers, each centred on one of the spacecraft, with the platinum-gold test masses defining the ends of the arms.

Here’s an artist’s impression of LISA:

This is excellent news for the gravitational waves community, especially since LISA was threatened with the chop when NASA pulled out a few years ago. Space experiments are huge projects – and LISA is more complicated than most – so it will take some time before it actually happens. At the moment, LISA is pencilled in for launch in 2034…

New: Top Ten Gaia Facts!

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 14, 2016 by telescoper

After today’s first release of data by the Gaia Mission, as a service to the community, for the edification of the public at large, and by popular demand, here is a list of Top Ten Gaia Facts.

Gaia looks nothing like the Herschel Space Observatory shown here.

Gaia looks nothing like the Herschel Space Observatory shown here.


  1. The correct pronunciation of GAIA is as in “gayer”. Please bear this in mind when reading any press articles about the mission.
  2. The GAIA spacecraft will orbit the Sun at the Second Lagrange Point, the only place in the Solar System where the  effects of cuts in the UK science budget can not be felt.
  3. The data processing challenges posed by GAIA are immense; the billions of astrometric measurements resulting from the mission will be analysed using the world’s biggest Excel Spreadsheet.
  4. To provide secure backup storage of the complete GAIA data set, the European Space Agency has commandeered the world’s entire stock of 3½ inch floppy disks.
  5. As well as measuring billions of star positions and velocities, GAIA is expected to discover thousands of new asteroids and the hiding place of Lord Lucan.
  6. GAIA can measure star positions to an accuracy of a few microarcseconds. That’s the angle subtended by a single pubic hair at a distance of 1000km.
  7. The precursor to GAIA was a satellite called Hipparcos, which is not how you spell Hipparchus.
  8. The BBC will be shortly be broadcasting a new 26-part TV series about GAIA. Entitled WOW! Gaia! That’s Soo Amaazing… it will be presented by Britain’s leading expert on astrometry, Professor Brian Cox.
  9. Er…
  10. That’s it.

To Edinburgh for Euclid

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 17, 2015 by telescoper

This morning I flew from London Gatwick to Edinburgh to attend the UK Euclid meeting at the Royal Observatory, which lasts today and tomorrow. It turns out there were two other astronomers on the plane: Alan Heavens from Imperial and Jon Loveday from my own institution, the University of Sussex.

The meeting is very useful for me as it involves a number of updates on the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission. For those of you who don’t know about Euclid here’s what it says on the tin:

Euclid is an ESA mission to map the geometry of the dark Universe. The mission will investigate the distance-redshift relationship and the evolution of cosmic structures by measuring shapes and redshifts of galaxies and clusters of galaxies out to redshifts ~2, or equivalently to a look-back time of 10 billion years. In this way, Euclid will cover the entire period over which dark energy played a significant role in accelerating the expansion

Here’s an artist’s impression of the satellite:


Do give you an idea of what an ambitious mission this is, it basically involves repeated imaging of a large fraction of the sky (~15,000 square degrees) over a period of about six years. Each image is so large that it would take 300 HD TV screens to display it at full resolution. The data challenge is considerable, and the signals Euclid is trying to measure are so small that observational systematics have to be controlled with exquisite precision. The requirements are extremely stringent, and there are many challenges to confront, but it’s going well so far. Oh, and there are about 1,200 people working on it!

Coincidentally, this very morning ESA issued a press release announcing that Euclid has passed its PDR (Preliminary Design Review) and is on track for launch in December 2020. I wouldn’t bet against that date slipping, however, as there is a great deal of work still to do and a number of things that could go wrong and cause delays. Nevertheless, so far so good!



The Cliffs of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 23, 2014 by telescoper

I don’t often post pictures from the excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day but today’s is so beautiful I couldn’t resist.


Image Credit & Licence (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO): ESA, Rosetta spacecraft, NAVCAM; Additional Processing: Stuart Atkinson

The explanation published with the picture goes:

These high cliffs occur on the surface of a comet. They were discovered to be part of the dark nucleus of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (CG) by Rosetta, a robotic spacecraft launched by ESA which began orbiting the comet in early August. The ragged cliffs, as featured here, were imaged by Rosetta about two weeks ago. Although towering about one kilometer high, the low surface gravity of Comet CG would likely make a jump from the cliffs, by a human, survivable. At the foot of the cliffs is relatively smooth terrain dotted with boulders as large as 20 meters across. Data from Rosetta indicates that the ice in Comet CG has a significantly different deuterium fraction — and hence likely a different origin — than the water in Earth’s oceans. The Rosetta spacecraft is scheduled to continue to accompany the comet as it makes its closest approach to the Sun in 2015 August.

For me, Rosetta has undoubtedly been the science highlight of the year. It has been an absolute triumph, and it’s not over yet as Rosetta will now follow the comet on its journey towards the Sun. With a bit of luck, the lander Philae will also awaken (hopefully in March) as the Sun begins to shine more brightly on its solar panels.

I think we should all wish a special Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone involved with this wonderful adventure!