Airbus and its forerunner companies have contributed to the exploration of space – from learning more about the Earth to revealing details about other plants, moons and comets.
Helios-A and Helios-B were the first space probes produced outside of the United States and the Soviet Union to leave Earth orbit, with their launches in 1974 and 1976. Built by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, a German predecessor company to Airbus, they were designed to study solar processes and enabled the collection of data on comets. The 370-kg.-class spin-stabilised Helios probes carried 10 scientific instruments and were placed in orbits around the Sun. During their trajectories, they set a maximum speed record for spacecraft of 252,792 km/hr. (70,220 meters/sec.).
Another early spacecraft was COS B, a scientific satellite developed by Airbus predecessors MBB and Aérospatiale to study extraterrestrial gamma radiation. It was the first satellite to go into space under the banner of the newly-created European Space Agency (ESA), with its orbiting in August 1975. COS B originally was targeted for launch on Europe’s own Europa-2 launch vehicle, but the spin-stabilised spacecraft ultimately was lofted by a U.S. Delta rocket in 1975 after the Europa launcher programme was cancelled. Initially planned for a mission duration of two years, COS-B was finally switched off in April 1982 after functioning successfully for six years and eight months.
Launched in 1989, ESA’s Hipparcos was a pioneering space experiment dedicated to precisely measuring the positions, parallaxes and proper motions of stars – which is more commonly called astrometry. It operated in space until 1993, and while in service pinpointed more than 100,000 stars – 200-times more accurately than ever before.
The Roentgen Satellite (ROSAT) was an X-ray observatory built by Airbus forerunner company Dornier. This Germany/U.S./UK collaboration allowed researchers for the first time to perform an all-sky survey of X-ray sources with an imaging telescope. Launched in June 1990 on a U.S. Delta rocket, ROSAT exceeded its planned 18-month lifetime expectation in Earth orbit, detecting about 80,000 cosmic X-ray sources and another 6,000 sources in the extreme ultraviolet regime. During nearly nine years of operation, more than 4,000 scientists from 24 countries took the opportunity to commission and analyse measurements.
Dornier also was the prime contractor for Ulysses, a mission of the European Space Agency and U.S. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to study the heliosphere – the region of space influenced by the Sun and its magnetic field. With a liftoff mass of 370 kg., Ulysses was a spin-stabilised spacecraft that included an RTG (Radio-isotope Thermoelectric Generator) for electrical power during its flight in deep space.
This long-duration mission had a delayed start: originally planned for launch on a Space Shuttle in May 1986, it was put on hold after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in January of the same year. It subsequently was launched by Space Shuttle Discovery in October 1990, with Ulysses remaining in operation for nearly 19 years. Achievements included the first-ever measurements of the unexplored region of space above the Sun's poles, determination of the global properties and behaviour of the solar wind, the study of energetic particles of solar and interplanetary origin, along with measurements of the magnetic field of the Sun and the heliosphere.
Exploring Saturn was the goal of an international mission called Cassini-Huygens, launched in 1997 aboard a U.S. Titan/Centaur rocket. Airbus predecessor Aérospatiale served as prime contractor for the Huygens atmospheric entry probe that landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Huygens was developed for the European Space Agency, and many engineering challenges had to be overcome in designing Huygens as the first probe to study a moon beyond the Earth's system.
Weighing approximately 318 kg., Huygens’ hard shell provided protection from high temperatures during the 2-hour and 27-minute descent through the Titan moon’s atmosphere after separating from the Cassini – which was in orbit around Saturn. Touching down on Titan’s surface in January 2005, Huygens made the first landing ever accomplished in the outer Solar System, as well as farthest landing from Earth ever performed by a spacecraft at the time – and the first landing on a moon other than the Earth’s own.
An Airbus-led team designed and built the Mars Express spacecraft, which lifted off in June 2003 from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz rocket as Europe’s first mission to the Red Planet. Mars Express’ name refers to its rapid and streamlined development timeline and involved the European Space Agency’s first visit to another planet in the Solar System.
After arriving at Mars in December 2003, data from this 1,120-kg. planetary orbiter helped answer fundamental questions about the geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water and potential for life on the planet. One of Mars Express’ most significant finds came from its on-board “webcam,” which captured 3D colour images of water ice and carbon dioxide ice in the planet’s south polar region.
A European Space Agency mission that is helping to solve many cosmic mysteries – from neutron stars and enigmatic black holes to the formation of galaxies – was developed by Dornier as the prime contractor and is operating well beyond its initial mission duration. Called XMM-Newton, this Earth-orbiting satellite was lofted by an Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher from Kourou, French Guiana in December 1999 for a nominal operation of two years – with its useful mission now extended to 2020.
XMM-Newton was the most powerful X-ray telescope ever placed in orbit and set the record as the biggest scientific satellite built in Europe. It had a launch mass of 3,800 kg., with an overall length of 10 metres. The three-axis stabilised spacecraft has a very high pointing accuracy and incorporates three “mirror modules” with more than 170 wafer-thin cylindrical mirrors and a focal plane assembly carrying the science instruments. XMM-Newton is detecting more X-ray sources than any previous satellite. Observing time with this platform is made available to the scientific community, open through regular announcements of opportunity on a competitive basis.
The Airbus-built Rosetta cometary mission for the European Space Agency can be summarised in a single word: “spectacular.”
Launched in 2004 by an Ariane 5, the spacecraft spent 10 years on a voyage of more than six billion kilometres to reach comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it studied the nucleus and surrounding environment. Rosetta made detailed observations of gas and dust eruptions while providing scientists with information on the comet’s activity during its orbit around the Sun. The spacecraft also was guided for flights across the comet’s night side to assess the plasma, dust, and gas interactions in this region, along with collecting dust samples.
During its time in close proximity to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta deployed the lander Philae for a touchdown on the celestial object in November 2014. While the lander ran out of power after operating 64 hours (because it bounced and ended up on its side in a deep crack shadowed by a cliff), Philae returned the first-ever images from a comet's surface and sent back data on a rich array of organic molecules – supporting the theory that comets are linked to the start of life on Earth.
In September 2016, Rosetta was directed to make a controlled slow descent onto the comet’s surface, bringing its mission to a close – but leaving a legacy of data that will be studied by scientists and researchers for years to come.
The ambitious goal of Gaia – an Airbus-designed and -built space surveyor for the European Space Agency – is to compile a 3D space catalogue of more than 1,000 million stars, or approximately roughly 1% of the stars in the Milky Way. With its name derived from mother Earth in Greek mythology, Gaia is a cornerstone space astrometric mission for the European Space Agency. Despite some performance challenges posed by basic pointing angle issues and stray light, this spin-stabilised spacecraft has taken more than 150 billion images, including star pictures and spectra.
Launched from French Guiana aboard a Soyuz-Fregat rocket in December 2013, Gaia’s trajectory took it to the Lagrange point L2 (situated 1.5 million km. behind the Earth), where data returned by the spacecraft is helping scientists solve the mystery of stellar evolution and star formation, while also providing new insights into the origin and formation history of the Milky Way. To ensure that Gaia would be able to face the rigours of space travel, Airbus created the largest instrument ever built fully in silicon carbide for this mission, using expertise gained from silicon carbide telescopes on the Herschel telescope and the Aladdin instrument for the European Space Agency’s wind satellite Aeolus, as well as on three Earth observation satellites
Another cutting-edge Airbus-designed and -built spacecraft – along with its instruments – is LISA Pathfinder, a European Space Agency technology demonstrator mission for one of the most ambitious scientific undertakings to date: proving key elements of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. With Airbus’ UK space operation as prime contractor, engineers in Stevenage were responsible for designing and building the overall system and platform – effectively creating a spacecraft capable of managing its own gravitational, magnetic and thermal environment. This enabled two test masses of identical gold and platinum cubes to be put in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall and control, allowing measurements of their motion with unprecedented accuracy within a delicate instrument shielded from all disturbances except gravity.
LISA Pathfinder was launched from French Guiana by a Vega rocket in December 2015 and operated from March 2016 to June 2017 in orbit around the first Sun-Earth Lagrange point L1, a region of thermal and gravitational stability. By paving the way for future missions by flight-testing the concept of gravitational wave detection from space, the LISA Pathfinder mission was honoured with the 2017 Space Technology Award of the American Astronautical Society.
Airbus has an important industrial role in BepiColombo, a mission of the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to research the solar system’s smallest and least-explored terrestrial planet – Mercury. The company is responsible for the system design and building of three BepiColombo spacecraft elements: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), a three-axis stabilised spacecraft tasked to study the planet’s surface and internal composition; the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), providing solar-electric propulsion on the mission’s trajectory to Mercury; and the sunshield and interface structure for the Japanese-built Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO).
BepiColombo will provide data on the peculiarities of Mercury´s internal structure and magnetic field generation, as well as how it interacts with the Sun and solar wind. The mission’s goals also include investigating Mercury’s surface features and chemistry, such as the ice in permanently-shadowed craters at the poles, with its science to significantly improve humans’ understanding of the formation of the Solar System, plus the evolution of planets close to their parent stars. After an Ariane 5 launch from French Guiana in October 2018, the 4,081-kg. spacecraft is traveling through space for seven years, to be captured by Mercurian gravity in late 2025 for its one-year scientific operation.
ESA's CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) is the first mission dedicated to studying bright, nearby stars that already are known to host exoplanets, in order to make high-precision observations of the planet's size as it passes in front of its host star. The satellite is based on Airbus’ AstroBus platform.
NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are collaborating to develop the James Webb Space Telescope, which is planned for launch on Ariane 5 as the next step after the legendary Hubble Space Telescope.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s payload module – called OTIS (Optical Telescope Element and Integrated Science) – includes two European instruments with major Airbus contributions: the near-infrared spectrograph NIRSpec (built by Airbus) and the mid-infrared instrument MIRI (built with Airbus support).