Farnborough air show: Satellites, space planes, and more (pictures)

The annual aerospace extravaganza brings a bounty of gear headed for Mercury, Mars, and other destinations in outer space.

Nick Heath
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ExoMars rover

The European Space Agency is readying rockets, satellite, and robots to blast into space to probe the secrets of our solar system. The biggest European space missions have been on display at the Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. this week, and CNET went along to find out what is being planned.

This is a model of the ExoMars rover that in 2018 will fly to Mars and drill below the planet’s surface for signs of life. The rover, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, will carry instruments to study the geochemistry and exobiology of the red planet. The vehicle will be autonomous, able to navigate to destinations by creating digital maps of its surroundings by processing data from its stereo cameras. ExoMars needs to be capable of making its own decisions because it will only be in contact with the earth during two periods of the Martian day.

Scientists will determine where the rover should drill by combining images from the system’s cameras with data from ground penetrating radar. The rover will drill a borehole up to two meters deep, extracting samples from the Martian landscape, which will be crushed and subject to detailed chemical, physical and spectral analyses in its on-board laboratory. The scientific data will be compressed and transmitted to Earth via a Mars orbiter relay satellite, at a rate of about 100 megabits each Martian day.

The rover will be able to traverse rough and soft terrain. It is driven by six wheels, each of which can be independently steered and driven, as well as being able to be pivoted to adjust the rover height. Inclinometers and gyroscopes also help enhance its all-terrain abilities, while sun sensors will help determine the rover’s orientation and position.

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Mars landing module

Landing safely on the surface of Mars is one of the most challenging tasks during any mission to the red planet. The European Space Agency’s entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM) will test a range of different technologies designed to provide a safe landing on the planet’s surface. The include a material for thermal protection, a parachute system, a radar Doppler altimeter system, and a braking system controlled by liquid propulsion.

The EDM will be transported by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016, a joint project led by ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency, to map the sources of methane and other gases on Mars, and help select the landing site for the ExoMars rover. It will also carry out limited scientific studies over the course of nine Martian days.

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EADS Astrium space plane

This is a concept model for a space plane that would carry passengers to 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface, where they would experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The plane would take off from a commercial airport using its jet engines until it reached an altitude of 12 km, when it would ignite its rocket engine to climb to 60 km. At this point the plane’s rocket engines would shut down and inertia would carry it to an altitude of more than 100 km.

The concept has been devised by designers at EADS Astrium, the company that designs the Ariane 5 space rocket and the main European contributor to the International Space Station. EADS also predict that such an aircraft could transport passengers between airports more rapidly than conventional aircraft, as it could fly at a higher altitude with less atmospheric resistance.

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Gaia stargazer

The Gaia spacecraft will help create a precise 3D map of more than 1 billion stars and will spot planets outside our solar system. To be launched in 2013, the ESA probe will spend five years measuring the position and velocity of these stars. The huge stellar census will allow astronomers to tackle an enormous range of questions related to the origin, structure, and evolutionary history of the galaxy.

It is expected to discover hundreds of thousands of new celestial objects, such as extra-solar planets and failed stars called brown dwarfs. Within our own solar system, Gaia should also identify tens of thousands of asteroids. Gaia will be equipped with one of the most sensitive telescopes yet made and its measurement accuracy is so great that if it were on the moon it could measure the thumbnail of a person on the earth.

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BepiColombo has a daunting task ahead of it -- surviving the red hot heat of the sun as it orbits the planet closest to our star. The joint ESA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission will be only the third to study Mercury when it launches in 2015. Missions to Mercury are rare, as keeping a spacecraft in stable orbit around Mercury is made difficult by the vast gravitational pull of the sun.

After a six-year journey to the planet, the satellite will have to withstand temperatures in excess of 350 degrees Celsius while it studies the structure and chemistry of the planet and its atmosphere, and probes the source of Mercury’s magnetic field. Key questions for BepiColombo to answer include "How does a relatively small planet like Mercury generate a magnetic field?"and "Is there ice on the dark side of the planet?" As the planet closest to the sun, Mercury could provide insight into how planets form.

BepiColombo will travel to Mercury using an ion engine, a drive powered by the expulsion of charged particles. Once it is approaching the planet, the craft will split into two orbiters, each charged with gathering different data, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter. Both of these craft will send back data for at least a year.

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Sentinel-1 satellites will carry radar instruments to monitor conditions on the Earth’s surface. The satellites will monitor and map a wide variety of terrain and phenomena, such as vegetation and agricultural crops, oil slicks, icebergs, flood areas and subsidence. ESA plans to launch the first Sentinel 1 satellite next year, followed by a second satellite a few years later.

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Monitoring satellites typically can only observe a small portion of the planet due to the low orbit altitudes at which they fly. The GO-3S satellite is intended to fly some 60 times higher than current monitoring satellites, giving it the ability to observe several continents at once. Sitting in geostationary orbit at 36,000 km, GO-3S will be able to continuously observe continents and pick out details on the ground just a few meters across. It is suited to monitoring rapidly changing phenomena over thousands of square kilometers. Potential uses for GO-3S include tracking ships in port or vehicles near a border, and monitoring vegetation growth.

EADS Astrium, the company behind plans for GO-3S, say that the optical quality of the mirror for GO-3S’s telescope will need to be 100 times greater than that for the space telescope Herschel. The company estimates that the satellite could launch in 2020.

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Proba is the European Space Agency’s family of microsatellites used to test new software and hardware, as well as scientific equipment. First launched in 2001, the diminutive satellites, no more than a meter across in any direction, have been used to test autonomous control systems, space weather monitoring platforms and imaging systems that have gone on to be used in various ESA missions.

The next Proba satellite in the family to launch, Proba-V, will test a host of instruments that will be used in future satellite missions. These include instruments to monitor vegetation growth, a system to allow aircraft detection from space, and a high-speed X-band transmitter.

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Galileo sat-nav

Satellite navigation has become a vital tool for industry, from shipping and road transport to agriculture and energy networks. Galileo is the name of the constellation of satellites that the European Commission and ESA are putting in orbit to provide sat-nav coverage. The service will be independent of, but interoperable with, the American GPS network.

The first two operational Galileo satellites were launched in October 2011 and will be followed by a third and a fourth craft in September of this year. In total, 30 Galileo satellites will be launched, using the Ariane 5 and Soyuz craft, from Europe's Spaceport over the next few years.

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Russian rockets

These are models of the next generation of Russian rockets. The Angara family of rockets, powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene engines, are designed to replace the existing Russian Proton boosters at some point during the current decade. They will carry payloads of varying weight, ranging from 1,500kg to 25,000kg, into low Earth orbit.

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Soyuz capsule

The Soyuz may not be a new spacecraft, but it remains invaluable to space missions. The Russian craft, initially designed for the Soviet space program in the 1960s, is still used to transport crew and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

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Soyuz, with cosmonauts

Here's a closer at what the accommodations are like for cosmonauts riding inside the Soyuz.

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