2013 will be a bumper year for space science: European Space Agency
European probes this year will return a treasure trove of data from explorations into the Big Bang, water on Mars and climate change, European Space Agency chief Jean-Jacques Dordain said.
"2013 will yield an extraordinary harvest" of knowledge about space, Dordain predicted at a press conference.
On February 22, he said, scientists will report back on the soil moisture and salinity mission, in which a satellite launched in 2009 is mapping the Earth's land surface and oceans for changes linked to global warming.
On March 21, astrophysicists will release the first all-sky map of cosmic microwave background - the backwash of ancient radiation from the universe's creation 14 billion years ago. The map has been generated by the probe Planck, launched in May 2009.
And in June, ESA experts will release a complete "mineralogical map" of Mars, assembled from remote-sensing data from the Mars Express space exploration mission, Dordain said. Displaying hydrate soils that point to the signature of past water, the map will help select sites for an ambitious European-Russian science mission, ExoMars, comprising an orbiter that will launch in 2016 and a rover in 2018.
On December 29, Mars Express will make the closest-ever fly-by of the Martian moon Phobos, "skimming" it to within less than 50 kilometres of its surface.
And later this year, Herschel, a space observatory launched in 2009, will provide a complete map of the Milky Way's plane, enabling astronomers to spot where stars are currently being born in our galaxy.
Also upcoming, in the second half of 2013, is the launch of Gaia, a "space astrometry" telescope that will survey a billion stars and provide the largest 3-D map of the Milky Way, Dordain said.
ESA's budget this year is €4.2 billion (HK$43.7 billion). Earth observation missions, which have scientific and environmental use, are the single biggest budget item, accounting for 22.9 per cent of the budget.