Interview: Dr. Neil Bowles on the ESA

On December 2, after a two-day meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, a council of ministers from ESA’s member states and associate members Slovenia and Canada agreed […]

On December 2, after a two-day meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, a council of ministers from ESA’s member states and associate members Slovenia and Canada agreed upon a €10.3 billion lifeline for all of its space programmes. Despite the current strained political and economic situation in Europe, the approved investment will mean that the bulk of ESA’s plans, including its commitment to participating in the ISS project up to 2024 and the launch of the ExoMars rover slated for 2020, will remain in place.

Dr. Neil Bowles, an Oxford University Planetary Science researcher who has worked on various instruments on-board spacecraft launched by both NASA and ESA, talked to Bang! about the state of ESA’s current plans and how Oxford is participating in them:

After the Schiaparelli lander smashed on the surface of Mars in October of this year, there was a lot of speculation about whether ESA will manage to convince member states to fund the rest of the project. Did you have any doubts about that?

I didn’t have many doubts that ESA would move forward with ExoMars. The main element of the mission—the Trace Gas Orbiter that will act as a relay once the rover arrives in 2020—entered orbit successfully and has taken data and tested its communications system. The orbiter was the main part of the mission back in September, and with that successfully in place ESA have the infrastructure to support the rover in 2020. The Schiaparelli lander was an experimental demonstration that returned a very large amount of information before it crashed, helping to debug the entry, descent and landing system. This information will be used to support testing of the more complicated descent system needed for the rover. The investment from the various contributing member states to ExoMars (especially Italy and the UK) is already significant so I wasn’t surprised that continued funding is being made available.  It is causing some problems in other areas of ESA programme by the looks of it; more details are in the press-release from last week’s ESA ministerial meeting.

How certain is the future of ESA-led space research?

ESA’s future space research programme is looking pretty good, although it is speculated that there may now be some delays to missions planned for the mid-2020s due to ExoMars’ cost increases.  One casualty of this from last week’s ESA ministerial meeting was the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) that would have needed to get the go ahead but is now stalled.  We weren’t directly involved in this mission, but it would have been very interesting for small Solar System bodies research.

Are you working on any of these projects?

Several people in Oxford are involved in the ExoMars Trace Gas orbiter, such as Pat Irwin and Colin Wilson.  The next hardware being assembled in Oxford for Mars is actually part of a NASA mission called InSight, now due to land in 2018.  The project is to develop some small high performance seismometers to measure ‘Marsquakes’.  It is led by Imperial College London, but we assemble and test the sensors here in Oxford.  We are also involved in numerous proposed missions that are trundling through the ESA selection process for the late 2020s to Venus: asteroids, comets and so on.

Dr Bowles is currently leading a proposal to ESA for a small space telescope called CASTAway to be launched in the late 2020s that would loop through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, measuring the composition of some of the oldest bodies in the Solar System. He’s also involved in the development of ARIEL, a mission aimed at studying exoplanet atmospheres, which is currently going through ESA’s selection process and, if successful, will launch in 2026.

(featured image courtesy of Thomas Hagemeyer, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

About Mantas Krisciunas