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ESA announces signature of its largest-ever contract awarded to build astronomy satellites

ESA announces signature of its largest-ever contract awarded to build astronomy satellites

22 June 2001

Alcatel Space, prime contractor for ESA's Herschel and Planck space telescopes.The largest contract ever in the history of European space astronomy has been awarded by the European Space Agency, ESA, to an industrial consortium led by Alcatel Space Industries (France), for the manufacture of two ESA astronomy satellites, the Herschel Space Observatory and Planck.

The contract, whose signature was announced today by ESA representatives at Le Bourget Airshow in Paris, is valued at 369 million Euros.

Alcatel Space of France will be the prime contractor of ESA's Herschel/Planck mission, with Astrium GmbH (Germany) and Alenia Spazio (Italy) as main contractors. The contract covers the activities of design, development, manufacture, test, launch and in-orbit commissioning of both satellites.

The large size of this mission is explained by the fact that it involves two large and complex satellites, Herschel and Planck. The decision to combine both missions into one was taken by ESA due to the significant cost savings that could be achieved in this way, and in view of certain technical commonalties shared by both satellites. For instance, their final orbits are such as to allow both spacecraft to be launched together in the same rocket.

However, once in operation Herschel and Planck will work as completely independent satellites, with different scientific goals and different orbits. In fact, this will be the first time that two satellites aimed at solving different astronomy problems are launched together and subsequently injected into different orbits.

The birth of the Universe and the first stars

Planck is the first European mission to study the birth of the Universe; it will be the most sensitive telescope ever designed for that purpose. Herschel is the largest imaging space telescope ever built, with a primary mirror 3.5 m in diameter; it will unveil how the first stars and galaxies formed in the early Universe, more than 12 billion years ago.

Who does what

Apart from being the prime contractor, Alcatel Space will be in charge of the Planck Payload Module development - the Payload Module hosts the spacecraft's scientific instruments. Alcatel Space will also be responsible for the assembly and testing of the Planck spacecraft.

Astrium GmbH will be entrusted with the Herschel Payload Module development, as well as with the Herschel spacecraft assembly and testing. The Herschel Payload Module consists basically of a large cryostat filled with liquid helium, containing the scientific instruments; the cryostat acts as a huge 'thermos bottle' that keeps key parts of the instruments - namely, the focal plane units - at a temperature very close to absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius). This is a strict requirement and one of the main technological challenges of the mission. The extensive experience of Astrium GmbH in cryostat technology was proven in ESA's Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), a highly successful pioneer in infrared space astronomy that was operational until 1998.

Alenia Spazio is in charge of the Service Modules for both the Herschel and Planck spacecraft - where telecommunications and 'spacecraft housekeeping' components are located. Alenia will also benefit from extensive experience in these types of activities for previous ESA astronomy missions.

The list of European companies taking part in this large industrial undertaking does not stop there. The subcontractors involved in this contract will cover all 15 European countries which are members of ESA, including Portugal which participates for the first time in an ESA scientific project.

The procurement of the three scientific instruments carried by Herschel and the two in Planck are not included in this contract, and they will be provided by consortia of scientific institutes from ESA's Member States. The telescopes for Herschel, with its massive 3.5 m primary mirror, and the Planck reflectors are also not part of this contract.

Note to Editors:

The Herschel Space Observatory and Planck will be launched in early 2007 by an Ariane 5 launcher from Kourou (French Guyana). They will separate after launch and proceed to different orbits around a virtual point in space known as 'L2', located 1.5 million km away from Earth - four times the distance to the Moon. Both spacecraft will be operated independently.

Herschel will be the largest space telescope ever launched, with a 3.5 m primary mirror. Its main goal is to study how the first stars and galaxies formed and evolved, one of the key problems in today's astronomy. It will be the first space observatory covering the full far-infrared and submillimetre waveband. Herschel, formerly called 'FIRST' (Far Infrared and Submillimetre Telescope), has been named after the British astronomer William Herschel, who discovered infrared light 200 years ago.

Planck will help to understand the origin and evolution of our Universe. It is the first European space mission devoted to that purpose, and the most sensitive ever designed. Planck will analyse with the highest accuracy ever achieved the first light that filled the Universe after the Big Bang, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. Planck is named after the German scientist Max Planck who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.

Thomas Passvogel, ESA Herschel/Planck project manager
Tel: +31 71 5655962

Gvran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel project scientist
Tel: +31 71 5653621

Jan Tauber, ESA Planck project scientist
Tel: +31 71 5655342

ESA Science Communication Service
Tel: +31 71 5653223

Last Update: 1 September 2019
27-Feb-2021 21:43 UT

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