ESA awards giant contract for new astronomy satellites
EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY SCIENCE RELEASE
Posted: June 26, 2001
The largest contract ever in the history of European space astronomy has been awarded by the European Space Agency, ESA, to an industrial consortium led by Alcatel Space Industries (France), for the manufacture of two ESA astronomy satellites, the Herschel Space Observatory and Planck.
The contract, whose signature was announced by ESA representatives at Le Bourget Airshow in Paris, is valued at 369 million Euros.
Alcatel Space of France will be the prime contractor of ESA's Herschel/Planck mission, with Astrium GmbH (Germany) and Alenia Spazio (Italy) as main contractors. The contract covers the activities of design, development, manufacture, test, launch and in-orbit commissioning of both satellites.
However, once in operation Herschel and Planck will work as completely independent satellites, with different scientific goals and different orbits. In fact, this will be the first time that two satellites aimed at solving different astronomy problems are launched together and subsequently injected into different orbits.
Planck is the first European mission to study the birth of the Universe; it will be the most sensitive telescope ever designed for that purpose. Herschel is the largest imaging space telescope ever built, with a primary mirror 3.5 m in diameter; it will unveil how the first stars and galaxies formed in the early Universe, more than 12 billion years ago.
Apart from being the prime contractor, Alcatel Space will be in charge of the Planck Payload Module development - the Payload Module hosts the spacecraft's scientific instruments. Alcatel Space will also be responsible for the assembly and testing of the Planck spacecraft.
Astrium GmbH will be entrusted with the Herschel Payload Module development, as well as with the Herschel spacecraft assembly and testing. The Herschel Payload Module consists basically of a large cryostat filled with liquid helium, containing the scientific instruments; the cryostat acts as a huge 'thermos bottle' that keeps key parts of the instruments - namely, the focal plane units - at a temperature very close to absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius). This is a strict requirement and one of the main technological challenges of the mission. The extensive experience of Astrium GmbH in cryostat technology was proven in ESA's Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), a highly successful pioneer in infrared space astronomy that was operational until 1998.
Alenia Spazio is in charge of the Service Modules for both the Herschel and Planck spacecraft - where telecommunications and 'spacecraft housekeeping' components are located. Alenia will also benefit from extensive experience in these types of activities for previous ESA astronomy missions.
The list of European companies taking part in this large industrial undertaking does not stop there. The subcontractors involved in this contract will cover all 15 European countries which are members of ESA, including Portugal which participates for the first time in an ESA scientific project.
The procurement of the three scientific instruments carried by Herschel and the two in Planck are not included in this contract, and they will be provided by consortia of scientific institutes from ESA's Member States. The telescopes for Herschel, with its massive 3.5 m primary mirror, and the Planck reflectors are also not part of this contract.
Herschel will be the largest space telescope ever launched, with a 3.5 m primary mirror. Its main goal is to study how the first stars and galaxies formed and evolved, one of the key problems in today's astronomy. It will be the first space observatory covering the full far-infrared and submillimetre waveband. Herschel, formerly called 'FIRST' (Far Infrared and Submillimetre Telescope), has been named after the British astronomer William Herschel, who discovered infrared light 200 years ago.
Planck will help to understand the origin and evolution of our Universe. It is the first European space mission devoted to that purpose, and the most sensitive ever designed. Planck will analyse with the highest accuracy ever achieved the first light that filled the Universe after the Big Bang, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. Planck is named after the German scientist Max Planck who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.
The Hubble Space Telescope's majestic view of the Eskimo Nebula. This spectacular poster is available now from the Astronomy Now Store.