Herschel and Planck final deep-space operations were critical experiences

One might expect the director in charge of building space science missions to say that the launch site of a mission would be where the greatest memories were created. No, it is not true. Although the launch marks a culmination, it is in many respects only the beginning of a space mission. Particularly clearly in solar system exploration, missions are paced in time by events like critical swing-bys, arriving in orbit, landing, getting back first data, and so on. Increasingly, deep space orbits are going to be de rigueur for astronomical missions.

Accordingly, the manoeuvring of space astronomy missions into their operational orbits is also now a nail-biting business. For me, the slow passage of Herschel and Planck out to their final deep-space orbits beyond the lunar orbit and first light were critical experiences. It is ESOC that carries responsibility for such key stages in delivery of the science that ultimately is what really matters. It is then that ESOC has to deliver.

This they do. It requires intense professionalism. Perhaps what strikes me most is that all this is taken for granted as being so.

From a personal point of view, one event dominates.

Landing the Huygens probe on Titan in 2005 marked Europe’s definitive arrival in planetary exploration. I had been haunted by the loss in the previous year of the Beagle 2 Mars lander. Its British team had drawn on the experience of working on Huygens (built and launched long before Beagle was begun). In fact, the Titan descent and landing went well and the world gasped. Europe was out on the final frontier.

What do I next anticipate?

To be frank, it is the landing of a Mars Rover in the 2020 ExoMars mission.  Beyond that, as space applications are increasingly absorbed into our everyday life, I trust also that we in Europe can come up with a long-term plan for Europe’s part in space exploration and astronomy. If we can face that challenge, wherever the trends of “New Space” take us, I am sure that as long as we want to explore the planets and the universe beyond, large space missions will have an important part to play. That needs to be done professionally.

Accordingly, I look forward to the next 50 years of ESOC with enthusiasm.

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