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The birth of a scientific space mission

News flash intro
In 2021 ESA launched a call for new scientific space missions – crucially important, because the scientific harvest of these missions will feed a new generation of researchers. BIRA-IASB is involved in 2 missions out of the 5 remaining candidates: Plasma Observatory and M-MATISSE. ESA will further scrutinise these candidates during a preliminary mission design study:

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  • Plasma Observatory proposes a multi-spacecraft constellation for magnetospheric research.
  • M-MATISSE is a two-spacecraft monitor of the solar wind effects on the Martian magnetosphere and ionosphere.


The 2021 ESA Science call

In December 2021 ESA launched a call for new scientific missions: for a “fast and small science mission” (F2 in ESA’s vocabulary) and for a “medium class mission” (M7 in ESA parlance), to be launched in 2031 and 2037. This offers an opportunity to propose space missions whose scientific harvest will feed a new generation of researchers.

Creativity and perseverance

Proposing a new space mission requires a flash of creativity, but also perseverance to deal with all the nitty-gritty details of how the ESA Science program works. One has to address the most relevant problems in space physics, planetary exploration, or astronomy.

Knowledge of the instrumentation that currently exists to study those problems is crucial. There are numerous constraints with respect to launcher capabilities, telemetry, … Also politics come into play. Can one bring together partners from different countries over Europe to share the costs? This may require some creativity too!

Mission candidates

  • We were a partner in the F2 Debye proposal, focusing on the behaviour of electrons in the solar wind, with a contribution to the solar wind monitor. Unfortunately, this proposal did not make it.
  • M7 candidate Plasma Observatory proposes a mother spacecraft and 6 daughter satellites to study the magnetosphere. BIRA-IASB is involved in building the ion mass spectrometer. This proposal passed the selection!
  • We were involved in the M7 Alfvén mission proposal, which targets the study of aurora (polar lights), again with a contribution to the ion mass spectrometer.  Despite the technological maturity, this proposal was not selected.
  • M7 Castalia proposed a voyage to a main belt comet. We were asked to join the consortium because of our merged sensor technology that combines a Langmuir probe with a magnetometer (collaboration with TU Braunschweig, IRF Uppsala, and LPC2E Orléans). This mission was not selected.
  • Similarly we joined M7 Heavy Metal, a mission to an M-class asteroid believed to possess a very special type of magnetosphere, again with the merged Langmuir probe / magnetometer … not selected.
  • M7 M-MATISSE proposes a two-spacecraft monitor of the solar wind control over the Martian magnetosphere and ionosphere, again with our merged sensor. The proposal was convincing, since ESA selected this one too!


We are involved in two of the five remaining M-class mission candidates. Phase 0 studies take place during the first half of 2023. A subsequent down-selection will be made in Q3 2023.

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Figure 1: Cover pages of the ESA Science F2 and M7 proposals in which BIRA-IASB was involved
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