The EU-funded project – known as Europlanet – aims to support Europe’s planetary science community in its task by providing its members with easier access to unique research facilities, specialised tools and crucial data. The project was launched in September 2015 and will end in August 2019.
Europlanet’s transnational access programme includes field sites that are similar, in a number of ways, to surfaces on Mars and on the moons Europa and Titan, which respectively orbit Jupiter and Saturn. Such field sites are used, for example, to test equipment under realistic conditions.
The research infrastructure also encompasses labs where the conditions of environments on other planets can be recreated or simulated, and facilities for the analysis of meteors and samples brought back from space. In addition, Europlanet offers access to a wealth of data and sophisticated online tools for its analysis.
Professor Mason said: ‘Our research infrastructure aims to provide the links needed between European partners to exploit the facilities that we have across Europe.’
Europlanet is also deeply committed to citizen science, said Professor Mason, who highlights amateur astronomers’ outstanding contribution. ‘The data they produce is very valuable – many asteroids and comets are actually identified by amateurs before they are seen by professionals,’ he explained.
Public engagement is another priority – for example, as a way to interest more young people in possible careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
‘The space-based industry in Europe has been complaining for some time that it doesn’t have enough people with the right skills coming through from universities and colleges,’ Professor Mason added.
In September, Europlanet launched a new Society for the advancement of planetary science, which is open to individual and institutional members.
Professor Mason, who is also President of the Europlanet Society, said: ‘With the launch of the Europlanet Society, we have put in place a sustainable structure to support planetary science in Europe for decades to come.’