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Europlanet 2020 launches new era of planetary collaboration in Europe
by Staff Writers
Milton Keynes, UK (SPX) Sep 16, 2015

For the study of planetary conditions without natural analogues on Earth, such as Mercury, Europlanet 2020 RI offers access to laboratory facilities capable of simulating a wide range of environments encountered on planetary bodies.

A 9.95 million euro project to integrate and support planetary science activities across Europe has been launched. The Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure (RI) is funded under the European Commission's Horizon 2020 programme and will run for four years until August 2019. The project is led by the Open University, UK, and has 34 beneficiary institutions from 19 European countries. Europlanet 2020 RI will address key scientific and technological challenges facing modern planetary science by providing open access to state-of-the-art research data, models and facilities across the European Research Area.

Prof Nigel Mason, the Project Coordinator, said, "We are delighted to announce the launch of this new Research Infrastructure. Since its foundation in 2005, Europlanet has played an immensely effective role in bringing together the European planetary science community. In this latest project, we have an ambitious programme of research, transnational access, virtual access and networking activities. In particular, our focus will be on fostering a closer relationship between industry and academia involved in planetary science, and supporting institutions and partners from countries in the early stages of developing planetary research programmes."

To support upcoming missions to Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn over the next decades, Europlanet 2020 RI will provide transnational access to terrestrial analogues for Mars, Europa and Titan. These include field sites at Rio Tinto, an acidic river environment in Spain, the Ibn Battuta Centre, a Mars-like desert in Morocco, and the glacial and volcanically active areas of Iceland.

Two new and highly diverse sites are to be characterized and made available to planetary researchers for the first time through Europlanet 2020 RI. The first of these sites is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, a unique, exotic environment where new crust is formed through processes characteristic of primordial Earth.

The Dallol Volcano, which dominates the Danakil northern landscape, has remarkable hydrothermal activity that may help us understand whether life could have evolved elsewhere in the Solar System. The second site is the highly saline Tirez Lake in Spain.

This environment provides an excellent analogue for chloride and sulphate deposits on Mars. Tirez has also been proposed as a terrestrial analogue of Europa's ocean, based on the hydrogeochemical characteristics of the lagoon and its similarity with spectral data from Europa's surface.

For the study of planetary conditions without natural analogues on Earth, such as Mercury, Europlanet 2020 RI offers access to laboratory facilities capable of simulating a wide range of environments encountered on planetary bodies. The Distributed Planetary Simulation Facility (DPSF) comprises seven world-leading laboratories in Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK. Three of these facilities will be updated during Europlanet 2020 RI to assist researchers in analysing data from Rosetta and preparing for the BepiColombo, JUICE and ExoMars missions.

In addition, Europlanet 2020 RI will provide access to a suite of laboratories for determining isotopic and elemental compositions of planetary samples. The project will also support future sample return missions by developing a methodology for the optimal handling, characterisation and analysis of rare samples.

Europlanet 2020 RI's Virtual European Solar and Planetary Access (VESPA) service will offer state-of-the-art, user-friendly access to the diverse datasets needed for comparing and understanding planetary environments in the Solar System and beyond. VESPA will provide cutting-edge visualisation and analysis tools and will expand the content of the Planetary Science Virtual Observatory with new data services.

Europlanet 2020 RI will train a wide community of users and data providers across Europe and, by the end of the project, VESPA will have provided five times the number of connected data services as are currently available. The infrastructure provided by VESPA will promote and enable joint analyses of many independent observations of Solar System objects, including data from space borne and ground-based facilities, maximising the scientific return.

The impact of space weather on power, communications and space systems at Earth has become in recent years an area of international concern and significant research efforts. Europlanet 2020 RI will extend space weather research to other planetary bodies, with the practical application of ensuring that missions throughout the Solar System are protected in the same way as Earth-orbiting and ground-based facilities.

Europlanet 2020 RI will develop space weather tools and models for Mars, Mercury, comets and the outer planets, which will support future missions such as ExoMars, Bepi-Colomobo and JUICE. It also will develop prediction and detection tools for planetary events like meteor showers and impacts.

Finally, Europlanet 2020 RI's networking activities will enhance cooperation and synergies in the planetary science community and industry, as well as between space exploration, ground-based observations, laboratory and field experiments, numerical modelling, and technology. Workshops, expert visits and technology foresight activities will promote innovation and identify strategic issues.

Europlanet 2020 RI will engage a wide range of stakeholders including industry, policy makers, the media and the public. It will use a combination of traditional media activities and new educational and social media tools, offer training and best practice workshops, as well as prizes and funding for innovation in engaging the public with planetary science.

The flagship 'Planetary Climate Detectives' project will challenge students to collect data on Earth's climate and compare with real data from Mars, Venus and Titan, demonstrating how the comparison of Earth with our planetary neighbours can help understand complex environmental issues.

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