The final three for ESA’s upcoming intermediate science mission

The final three for ESA’s upcoming intermediate science mission

Science and exploration


The space science community has narrowed down the shortlist for ESA’s next “medium” mission to three finalists: M. Mattis, the Plasma Observatory, and Theseus. After further study, one will be selected for implementation as the latest addition to ESA’s fleet of space science missions.

Medium (or “M-class”) missions are a key component of ESA’s science program that enables Europe to answer important scientific questions. Solar Orbiter, Euclid and Mars Express are examples of M-class flyby missions, while Plato and Ariel are currently being built for launch in the next six years.

From the Sun to dark matter, ESA’s current M-class missions cover a wide range of space science topics. The newest addition will complete the fleet by highlighting the habitability and evolution of Mars (M-Matisse), exploring the plasma environment around Earth (Plasma Observatory) or studying high-energy, short-lived events across the universe (Theseus).

The process of selecting the intermediate scientific task

In December 2021, ESA called for proposals for the next M-class mission, scheduled to launch in the mid-2030s. From 27 responses, experts inside and outside ESA used rigorous scientific and technical assessments and a peer-review selection process to narrow down the number of proposals in the pipeline. In November 2022, five mission concepts remained.

Between January and September 2023, these five finalists underwent “Phase 0” studies — a mission that explores the expected science that could be achieved with each mission, as well as coming up with a preliminary mission design.

Today, ESA’s Science Program Committee endorsed the decision that three of the five – MATIS, Plasma Observatory, and THESEUS – will enter a more detailed study period (Phase A) to further explore their potential. More information about the scientific objectives of each mission can be found at the end of this article.

“All five mission proposals that went through Phase 0 were excellent – ​​they addressed unique and exciting topics, and were achievable in the mid-2030s timeframe, so it was really difficult to come to a final decision,” explains Carol, ESA’s director of science. “. Mondale.

“We established a panel of experts from ESA member states to review the nominated missions. The reviewers followed a rigorous selection process, which included consideration of scientific value, scientific feasibility, timeliness, and integration with other projects.

Cecilia Hernandez of AEE (Agencia Espacial Española), Spain, and Chair of the Science Program Committee, adds: “We would like to congratulate all five proposals, each of which has shown excellent promise for shedding light on unanswered space science questions. We look forward to the many discoveries they will make.” The chosen final task will achieve it.

During the upcoming Phase A studies, two different airlines will conduct a detailed study of each candidate mission, leading to a more comprehensive design of each mission. It is expected that one candidate mission will be selected by mid-2026.

This mission will eventually form part of ESA’s fleet of science missions, covering a wide range of ambitious space science topics. Whether it’s M-Matisse, Plasma Observatory, or Theseus, he’ll be a valuable addition to the team.

ESA space science missions

M-Matisse You will study Mars using two spacecraft, each carrying an identical set of instruments to observe Mars simultaneously from two different locations in space. In particular, M. Mattes will highlight how the solar wind affects the Martian atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere. The mission aims to study the impact of these interactions on the lower atmosphere and surface of Mars, which is an essential aspect for understanding the habitability of the red planet, as well as the evolution of its atmosphere and climate.

Plasma Observatory It is a seven-spacecraft mission to study the environment of electrically charged particles (called plasma) around Earth. It will focus on two questions: How are particles activated in space plasma? What processes dominate energy transfer and drive interactions between different regions of the Earth’s magnetosphere system? The Plasma Observatory will complement ESA’s current and planned missions investigating the interaction between the Sun and Earth to support our understanding of how the solar wind affects our planet, ultimately helping us keep life and technology safe from its effects.

Theseus It is a multi-instrument mission focused on high-energy, short-lived events in the universe. In particular, Theseus will look at gamma-ray bursts near and far. Nearby, short-lived gamma-ray bursts are likely analogues to gravitational waves from merging neutron stars. Distant, longer-lived gamma-ray bursts would help us understand more about the appearance of the first galaxies in the universe. Overall, Theseus will cover a wide range of sciences, from stellar astrophysics and the effects of stellar activity on exoplanets, to the physics of matter accretion and particle acceleration processes.

A new way to advance the future’s large (L-class) mission: NewAthena

The European Space Agency’s Science Program Committee today also endorsed a modified version of Athena, which was selected as a large mission in 2014. Designed to capture X-ray light to study the hot, vibrant universe, the path forward for the “new Athena” is expected to change. Our knowledge is in almost every corner of modern astrophysics.

ESA and industrial partners have worked hard to come up with a simplified mission design that meets the cost requirements set by the Science Program Committee but nonetheless delivers scientific excellence and ambition in line with what is expected of a pioneering L-class mission.

NewAthena is expected to be certified in 2027, and launch is planned for 2037.

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