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Europlanet Launches €10M Research Infrastructure To Support Planetary Science

Image courtesy of Europlanet.

The Europlanet Society has launched a €10 million (approximately US$10.75 million) project, the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure (RI), to provide open access to the world’s largest collection of planetary simulation and analysis facilities, as well as a global network of small telescopes, data services, and community support activities. Europlanet 2024 RI aims to widen participation in planetary science and provides the infrastructure to address key scientific and technological challenges facing the planetary research community.

The project is funded through the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme and will run for four years from February 2020 until January 2024. The Europlanet 2024 RI consortium is led by the University of Kent, UK, and has 53 beneficiary institutions from 21 countries in Europe and around the world, with a further 44 affiliated partners.

“This is a step-change in ambition for Europlanet, involving 60% more partners and expanding our collaborations in Africa and, for the first time, in Asia,” said Prof Nigel Mason, the Coordinator of Europlanet 2024 RI and President of the Europlanet Society. “The project will draw on the resources of the Europlanet Society, launched in 2018, to disseminate activities and outcomes and develop a more diverse community of users.”

Europlanet 2024 RI will provide the planetary community with free ‘transnational access’ to 24 laboratories in Europe and five field sites worldwide to carry out research projects.

Prof Gareth Davies, of VU Amsterdam, who leads the transnational access programme, said: “Europlanet 2024 RI has created a unique collection of field sites and laboratories to simulate and analyse planetary environments. Planetary missions over the next decade will study very diverse targets in our own Solar System and those around other stars. Europlanet 2024 RI has chosen a suite of facilities that can best help us understand the data sent back by spacecraft and plan for future missions.”

The five field sites offered by Europlanet 2024 RI stretch from Africa to the Arctic Circle and provide terrestrial analogues for planetary environments past and present, including the icy environments of Europa and Ganymede, geothermally active regions of Venus, Io and ancient Mars, and lava caves on the Moon or Mars that may house human habitats in the future.

Eleven laboratories provide simulation facilities for atmospheric and surface environments that do not exist on Earth, from the scorching surface conditions of Mercury and Venus, to low-pressure dust-storms on Mars, or the extreme cold of Uranus, Neptune and comets, as well as dust and particle accelerators to study impact and irradiation effects. A further 13 facilities offer capabilities to analyse the composition of planetary samples with high precision and using non-destructive techniques, and to detect and sequence microbial communities found living in hostile conditions on Earth.

Europlanet 2024 RI builds on the heritage of EU-funded projects dating back over 15 years. To harness collaborations developed between professional and amateur astronomers, Europlanet 2024 RI is launching a coordinated network of small telescope facilities around the world that can provide rapid response observations to support planetary missions.

The project will expand virtual access services to include a geological mapping portal, GMAP, and to exploit machine learning for automatic recognition and analysis of planetary data sets.

Over 30 databases will be added to the VESPA virtual observatory portal, which currently provides access to 54 planetary science data services derived from space missions, observation campaigns, modelling projects and laboratory experiments. Europlanet 2024 RI will also extend its planetary space weather service, SPIDER, to provide predictions and alerts for spacecraft operations in response to solar activity and support science data analysis.

To bring in new users, support the community and raise awareness of planetary science, Europlanet 2024 RI will organise training and workshops to engage industry, policy makers, early career professionals and researchers from countries that are under-represented in planetary science, both in Europe and around the world. The project will also trial a reciprocal access agreement with Chinese and Korean research facilities.

Prof Barbara Cavalazzi of the University of Bologna, who leads global collaboration activities for Europlanet 2024 RI, said: “We aim to help create a more interconnected global planetary science community and support sustainable development around new facilities, recognising the unique contribution of each community involved and building collaborative research and outreach programmes.”

This announcement was made on 25 February 2020.

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