ESA Mission to Mars

This week is Engineering Week in Ireland and it got off to a great start at WIT with a talk on space exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA) by Micheal McKay, the Belfast-born engineer who has acted as Flight Operations Director for ESA lunar and Mars missions. (The seminar was presented by CALMAST, the Centre for the Advancement of Learning of Mathematics, Science and Technology at WIT, see here for other science/engineering events this week).

Dr McKay started with a superb outline of space exploration in general and of the work of the European Space Agency in particular. He put great emphasis on practical applications such as:

– the monitoring of the earth’s climate via the ESA ERS satellites:

– the forthcoming ESA Galileo GPS network, an independent European satellite telecommuncations network, vital for air traffic contol and for air/sea rescue:

– the SOHO mission, a study of the interaction of solar output with the earth’s magnetic field with the ESA SOHO satellite:

– observations of the most distant galaxies using Far Object Cameras mounted on ESA satellities:

– the study of the atmosphere of Venus using an ESA satellite, gathering vital information on the greenhouse effect and its implications for the earth.

One of the ESA’s earth-monitoring satellites

A schematic of the ESA’s Galileo GPS system

McKay then went on to talk about the ESA’s greatest success – the Mars Express Orbiter. He gave a superb overview of the information got from the orbiter, despite the loss of the Beagle II Lander. Indeed, McKay spent a good deal of time on the Mars mission, explaining carefully that it was the Mars Express that established the first firm evidence for substantial ice/water at the south pole. At this point, the speaker described two great examples of the sort of thinking-outside-the box engineering solutions  necessary in his  job  – the slow rotation of the Mars orbiter into sunlight to free up a jammed hinge on one of the antennae, and a software ‘sunglasses’ patch to protect a sensitive detector from excess sun…both successfully completed from hundreds of millions of miles away!

The Mars Express Orbiter

McKay also spent some time explaining the next ESA Mars project, a  manned mission to Mars in 2030.  I won’t describe this part in detail, but you can find details of the Aurora mission here;

This ws a fine seminar and there were a few general themes  I liked a lot:

(i) ‘you too can do this’ – like so many at the top, the speaker continually emphasised to the students that they too had the potential for a great career in space exploration

(ii) the outstanding success of a relatively young European space agency (currently accounts for 40% of the global space market) and the fact that European citizens are not always aware of it

(iii) the spectacular benefits of European co-operation, and of the co-operation between ESA and NASA and other space agencies – nations seem to co-operate better in space than down here!

(iv) the importance of space exploration in its own terms for our knowlege of our universe, plus the beneficial spinoffs such as the ERS  earth observation missions

(v) the success of Ireland’s membership of ESA: not just in terms of commercial contracts gained, but the payback in terms of experience and knowledge brought back to Ireland, and the potential for fantastic careers in space exploration for the next generation of Irish science and engineering students

Interesting that many of these themes are precisely the advantages that I, and others, refer to as the potential benefits of Irish membership of CERN – see earlier post on CERN and Ireland.


At question time, I asked the speaker the stock question – given the expense of building the space station necessary for manned expeditions to Mars, what can a manned mission discover that robotics cannot? He answered this in detail, carefully listing the problems of communication and contol of robots. It will be interesting to see what happens in the context of the current recession..

All in all, this was an inspiring seminar for our students given by a top expert in the field.  For me, the highlights were a music video showing the docking of the ESA vessel Columbus to the International Space Station, and the description of the solutions to engineering problems with the Mars Express orbiter – from a software patch to protect a detector from excess sun, to the rotation of the station into sunlight to free up a jammed hinge!


Filed under Astronomy, Public lectures

3 responses to “ESA Mission to Mars

  1. kevin

    Pretty interestingl that a question was asked on monday night about the sheer number of satellites and who was monitoring them and no sooner than two days later that it happened for the first time.

  2. cormac

    I just heard! I think this is the first satellite collision. Were they both navigation satellites? Hope someone isn’t starting a war up there…

  3. kevin

    no one was just a non-operational Russian satellite, so they are saying!