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Europe earmarks major projects in Year of Astronomy
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Jan 14, 2009

The European Space Agency (ESA) on Wednesday spelt out an array of top-line projects, including new orbital telescopes to peer into deep space, that would be launched in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.

"2009 will be particularly rich and valuable," ESA's director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said in a meeting with journalists where he outlined the agency's plans for the year.

The schedule includes the launch of Herschel Space Observatory, designed to capture long-wavelength radiation from some of the most distant objects in space.

Herschel, whose 3.5-metres (11.37-feet) diameter mirror is the largest ever built for a space telescope, is scheduled to be launched on April 12 alongside the Planck Observatory. It will study the Universe as it was shortly after the Big Bang.

Other big research schemes this year are the launch of three Earth-observation satellites -- GOCE, for studying terrestrial gravity; SMOS, for soil humidity; and Cryosat 2, investigating ice and snow cover.

Two more European modules will be added to the International Space Station (ISS) -- a junction element called Node 3 and a windowed unit, or "cupola," for observation by the crew.

After much delay, the ISS crew will double this year from three to six members, which should enable better use of the facility as a base for scientific research.

Later this year, ESA's launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, will see the maiden liftoff of Vega and Soyuz rockets, intended to complement the Ariane-5 heavy launcher in the light and medium range of services offered by the commercial firm Arianespace.

Last November, ministers from the 18 ESA countries, as well as from Canada, approved spending of nearly 10 billion euros (12.8 billion dollars) to continue existing programmes and fund future projects.

France and Germany are ESA's two biggest contributors, accounting together for more than half of its budget.


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