Over the next 10 years, the European Space Agency is planning to search for life on Mars, to begin the process of setting up a village on the Moon and to test out deep space habitats for future long-duration missions. These ambitious goals follow the successful Rosetta mission (where scientists landed a spacecraft on the surface of a comet) and dozens of other ongoing projects that will expand our understanding of the universe.
Speaking to IBTimes UK at the ESA's Space for Innovation conference in London's Science Museum, director general Jan Woerner said his first year in the role had been a busy one, with several different projects currently on the table.
Further to this, he said his vision had been to "open up" the space agency – to interact with the general public and to get them engaged with the space industry.
"We are communicating to the outer world what we are doing and why we are doing it. But I'm also encouraging people to work with us to give their opinion," he said.
"I was surprised how deeply people think about space – much deeper than expected. They were thinking about space debris – normal people are thinking about space debris and what can we do.
"They are thinking that space assets should be something for their nation. They are asking ESA very clearly, it should have an advantage – it should have advantage for Europe and the world. People on the street have a global mindset and this is excellent for the future."
And this is what ESA is aiming for. One of their next missions, ExoMars, will search for signs of alien life on the Red Planet. The lander will drill down beneath the surface of Mars, taking samples to investigate the environment and to pave the way for future missions that will see samples returned to Earth.
"I think ExoMars has the potential to look for life on Mars, whether that is evidence of past life or under the crust there is something like life – what we define as life," Woerner said. "Mars is the best candidate in our solar system. It's close, it has a rather nice environment for life compared to other planets, so Mars is the most promising in our solar system."
David Parker, director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration at the ESA, said ExoMars is a "landmark" mission that will see the first rover dedicated to searching for life.
In recent years, the possibility Mars once hosted life has become ever more plausible. Nasa recently announced the discovery of water, while studies of its geology show it was once covered by a vast ocean – one that persisted for long enough for life to thrive.
"We've got a lot of exciting missions coming up. One will be a real landmark is when we send the first life search rover to the planet Mars," Parker said. "This is the first mission designed to look for past or present life. That will drill below the surface and will be the accumulation of more than a decade's worth of work.
"If we found some positive evidence the next thing we'd want to do is send probes to bring rocks or material back from the planet to the Earth and put it in all the laboratories. It's the next big step in robotics exploration and a stepping stone to sending astronauts there and back."
Woerner believes the chance of life existing elsewhere in the universe is also promising. The launch of the James Webb Telescope in 2018 will vastly improve our ability to look at distant planets and their atmospheres – meaning we can work out if they would be suitable to life.
"We are looking also for extraterrestrial evidence of life on planets which have habitable situations. There are many," he said. "If you count the stars in universe, the number is 10 to the power of 24. That means 10 with 24 zeros. If you calculate 10 planets per star, then you have 10 to [the] power of 25. That means to say in this big number of possible planets that there's only Earth which has life – that would be too simple thinking."
Unlike Nasa, the ESA is not currently looking to send humans to Mars. Instead, Woerner has announced plans to create a village on the Moon. He wants to set up an operation on the surface with both human and robotic missions, potentially created through 3D printing. "Moon village is a very special thing," he said. "Moon village is something where we put exploration at the centre. It is in the human genes to explore the world, to pioneer, this is Moon village."
Parker agreed the next step for them is not a manned mission to Mars. Indeed, before a Moon village can become a reality, there are many challenges that will need to be overcome first. "Everybody sees Mars as the end point for human exploration but there are a lot of steps before that," he said.
"The next thing we want to do beyond the space station is to live and work much more remotely from planet Earth. We have a vision of a mini spaceship 1,000 times further out in space – we call it a deep space habitat. That's where we'll learn to live with little resources, cope with the radiation environment and that's a bridge to go back to the surface of the Moon and later on out to Mars.
"To solve the challenges of living and working on the Moon or Mars, there are a lot of challenges about physical challenges – how will the body react? How can we protect astronauts from radiation? But there are also the psychological factors of how do they cope with the environment, how does food affect them, happy, unhappy. All of these things are important so we want to do as much as we can on Earth before we go there for real."
Parker said they plan to begin building the deep space habitat in the middle of the 2020s, with the potential for testing by the end of the decade. "That opens the door to going down to surface of the moon and ... starting this moon village."
The future of the ESA is a busy one. Woerner assured the conference UK's involvement following the Brexit vote is not in question – countries do not have to be part of the EU to be a participating member of the space agency. Rather, the director general said he wants to expand its reach even further: "ESA is international organisation. We have the possibility to join forces with every state in the world.
"[We want to] understand more about the world. To look into the universe and understand how stars are born. What is a black hole? What is dark matter? What is dark energy?" Asked if he would go to space himself, he added: "Of course, immediately. I would go to space. ISS is at this time the point to go, but I would like to go to Moon and, if we had the instruments, I would also go to Mars."