Space explorationSolar system and beyond

Airbus Defence and Space is at the heart of space exploration, developing the technology that allows mankind to investigate the inner solar system and beyond. Conducting research for ESA, NASA and national space agencies, these missions are enhancing our understanding of the universe.

SunUlysses, SOHO and Solar Orbiter

Solar Orbiter

Closer to the sun than planet Mercury

Set for launch in 2018, Solar Orbiter will scrutinise the Sun in unprecedented detail. Travelling closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury, it will make detailed measurements of the nascent solar wind. Its mission is to explore how the Sun creates the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space dominated by the solar wind. Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS) is the prime contractor for the Solar Orbiter.

Solar Orbiter is building on hugely successful missions such as SOHO and Ulysses, also collaborations between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. Originally planned for a two-year mission, SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, celebrated an incredible 20 years of scientific discoveries in 2015. The spacecraft was built for ESA by companies in 14 European countries, led by Airbus DS, and plays an essential role in forecasting threatening solar storms.

Prior to SOHO, Airbus DS also led the construction of the Ulysses deep-space mission (1990-2009). Ulysses made the first-ever measurements of the uncharted region of space above the Sun's poles to understand its effect on our solar system.

I tip my hat to all the engineers and scientists who designed and built this durable spacecraft and superb instruments."

Bernhard Fleck, ESA's SOHO mission manager

Read more on Airbus DS website



Exploring uncharted territory

With Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor, BepiColombo is Europe's first mission to Mercury, the least explored planet in the inner solar system.

When it arrives in 2024, two orbiters will endure temperatures of 350°C and gather data for at least one year. The mission: to study the composition, geophysics, atmosphere and history of the planet.

Airbus Defence and Space will have to address several technical challenges. They mostly derive from the difficulty of operating a spacecraft in the harsh environment of a planet so close to the Sun, where the radiation is about 10 times more intense than in Earth’s proximity."

Jan van Casteren, ESA’s BepiColombo Project Manager

Read more on Airbus DS website

VenusVenus Express

Venus Express

Understanding climatic evolution

Airbus Defence and Space was prime contractor to ESA for the design and development of Venus Express, the first European spacecraft to visit the planet Venus. The satellite ended its mission in November 2014 after investigating the planet’s atmosphere for eight years. This analysis is crucial for the understanding of long-term climatic evolution processes on Earth.

The name Venus Express comes from the very short time to prepare the quest: it took less than three years from the approval to the launch of the mission, on 9 November 2005. In order to achieve this goal, the Venus Express spacecraft is almost identical to the Mars Express.

Read more on Airbus DS website

1.5 million km from EarthGaia, LISA Pathfinder, James Webb


The space surveyor

In 2013, the Gaia space observatory began mapping more than a billion stars in the Milky Way, in order to draw up a 3D map of our galaxy. With Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor, the mission will also explore Einstein’s general theory of relativity with greater detail than ever before.

Gaia is not the only spacecraft to investigate Einstein’s work: in December 2015, ESA launched Airbus DS-developed LISA Pathfinder to test technology for gravitational wave detection. It is the prelude to LISA, which will aim to measure gravitational waves caused by black holes, as predicted by Einstein more than a century ago.

The James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, is the more advanced successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The NASA observatory will search for the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang with the help of two instruments developed by Airbus DS: the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).

LISA Pathfinder

From the Earth, Gaia could have measured a freckle on Neil Armstrong’s face as he took his first steps on the moon."

Vincent Poinsignon, head of the Gaia project at Airbus Defence and Space

Read more on Airbus DS website

James Webb Space Telescope

MarsExoMars and Mars Express

Mars Express and ExoMars

Exploring the Red Planet

The Airbus Defence and Space-developed Mars Express was ESA's first visit to another planet in our solar system. Launched in 2003 and still operating, Mars Express captured high-resolution pictures of the entire Martian surface, helping to answer questions about its geology and possibility of water on the Red Planet.

In 2019, ESA will go one step further with the ExoMars programme and deliver a rover to the planet’s surface. Under development by Airbus Defence and Space, the rover will travel several kilometres across the Martian surface to search for signs of microbial life, past or present.

The most recent Mars rover, Curiosity, is currently assessing whether the planet is – or was – able to support life. Two Airbus Defence and Space systems are aboard the car-sized Curiosity: a steerable antenna to enable direct communication with Earth and a meteorological station to study the climate.

The technologies developed as part of the ExoMars programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge."

Vince Cable, UK Secretary of State for Business, at Airbus DS’s Stevenage site

Read more on Airbus DS website



ESA’s next life-tracker

JUICE is ESA’s next life-tracker inside the solar system. The mission, with Airbus Defence and Space as the prime contractor, will be launched in 2022, arriving at Jupiter in 2030 to spend three years making detailed observations of its moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, all thought to host internal oceans – potential habitats for life.

“JUICE will address the question: Are there current habitats outside Earth in the Solar System with the necessary conditions to sustain life?” says François Auque, Head of Space Systems at Airbus Defence and Space.

Read more on Airbus DS website



Beyond the storms of Titan's moons

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn was “the most ambitious effort in planetary space exploration ever mounted”, ESA said. Launched in 1997, it unlocked the secrets of Saturn, its mysterious rings and many moons. In 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Saturn’s moon Titan: the only landing ever accomplished on a planet in the outer solar system.

Airbus Defence and Space was responsible for the manufacture of the Huygens probe’s internal structure and for the integration of the entire Huygens spacecraft, among other developments, such as the successful parachute braking system.

Cassini-Huygens was one of the most complex missions in ESA’s history."

Álvaro GiménezDirector of Science and Robotic Exploration at the ESA

Read more on Airbus DS website

CometsRosetta and Giotto


Chasing the origins of life

Rosetta was launched in 2004 and arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. After a journey of six billion kilometres, its lander Philae safely settled on the surface. Science magazine celebrated ESA’s Rosetta mission, built by an industrial team led by Airbus Defence and Space, as 2014's ‘Breakthrough of the Year’.

ESA and Airbus DS have history in exploring comets: in 1986, Giotto obtained the first close-up pictures of a comet nucleus during its historical flyby of Halley's Comet. This was followed by a flyby of Grigg-Skjellerup in 1992, the closest ever cometary flyby at the time. Airbus Defence and Space was responsible for the industrial leadership of the Giotto mission.

Read more on Rosetta mission

In a galaxy not so far away… Our Solar system vs 'Star Wars' universe

  • The 2 suns of Tatooine

    Earth-like planets with two suns, a rarity made famous by the planet Tatooine in Star Wars, does exist in our universe. The planet Kepler-16b, 200 light years from Earth, is a world in orbit around two stars.

  • Han Solo found in Mercury?

    In 2013, NASA said its Messenger spacecraft found Star Wars hero Han Solo on Mercury's surface, encased in carbonite. The intriguing image was formed by an elevated block on the planet's surface.

  • Bespin's floating city

    Engineers and scientists at NASA's Langley Research Center are developing a plan to deploy huge airships crewed by astronauts in Venus's upper atmosphere. The project, called HAVOC, is more or less a cloud city, like the planet Bespin’s floating city, first seen in 'The Empire Strikes Back'.

  • Mars and Geonosis

    Mars is a twin of Geonosis, a red desert planet from 'Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones'.

  • Jupiter and Mygeeto

    Jupiter’s moon Europa could be a real version of Mygeeto, an ice planet depicted in the film 'Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith'.

  • Saturn's crater and the Death Star

    Saturn’s moon Mimas, with its giant impact crater, resembles the Death Star, the space station known from the film 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope'.

  • Comet becomes a storm trooper

    'Comet' was the nickname of a clone trooper who served in the Grand Army of the Republic, in the computer animated film 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars'.

  • Mother Earth and Alderaan

    Alderaan is an Earth-like planet covered mostly in water, seen in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.