February 26, 2024

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Only forty minutes after the launch, astronomer Rene Lorig was able to breathe a sigh of relief

Only forty minutes after the launch, astronomer Rene Lorig was able to breathe a sigh of relief

For astronomer René Lorig, it was the first launch he had attended, on July 1, and what a launch it was: the Euclid satellite had departed for its destination 1.5 million kilometers from Earth to answer big questions about the universe and its history.

Robin Goudsmit

Attending a satellite launch is a special feeling. Not so much emotionally, but physically. “It's as if there is a very large speaker somewhere sending sound vibrations through your body,” says René Lorig in the hall of the European Space Agency (Esa) office in Noordwijk.

The 63-year-old astronomer has been working at the European Space Agency for more than thirty years. In those three decades, he attended only one launch: last July 1 in Florida. There he watched the Euclid satellite begin its journey through space. Lorigs and his colleagues have worked on the project for years.

Euclid's goal: to provide further insight into the mysterious dark matter and dark energy. It is not known what it consists of. However, it makes up about 95% of the universe. Visible matter – stars, planets, and humans – makes up only 5%.

Euclid has a very advanced telescope, with which the satellite will take pictures of the furthest reaches of space. By mapping visible matter, Euclid could contribute to scientific knowledge about the invisible. Because from how matter moves through space, scientists will hopefully be able to read how dark matter and dark energy behave.

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Calling on the whole world to search for a new missile

To say that Laureijs was involved with Euclid for a long time is what you might call an understatement. The first ideas of what Euclid would become appeared when his son had just been born. This son is now seventeen.

What was it like working on the same project for nearly two decades? Exhausting, Laureijs says immediately. There is a huge team working on Euclid. All these people must be able to work together. There is competition with other projects: ESA cannot fund all the ideas of all scientists.

At the last minute, Euclid's launch was also hacked. Russia has invaded Ukraine, sparking a war felt in every corner of the world. Also in Isa and Euclid Project. Because the satellite will be launched by a Russian-made Soyuz rocket. The war made cooperation with the Russians impossible.

So Lorigs and his team had to search for a new rocket and another launch pad at the last minute. He says: They searched the city and the country. “At ESA, we have reconsidered all the rockets we make ourselves. We have seriously studied the launch from Japan. We have also looked at American rockets.”

Elevator from Elon Musk

The type of rocket used for these types of launches matters, Lorig explains. At the European Space Agency, a satellite like Euclid undergoes a series of extensive tests. In laboratories, the satellite is shaken, exposed to large amounts of light, or bombarded with sound. All to check if the satellite can withstand the rigors of launch.

But those tests now focused on what the Soyuz rocket does, not on any other type. There was no time or money to repeat all the experiments.

Help came from an unexpected source: Tesla billionaire Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, managed to take Euclid into space. not important. “They launch a hundred missiles there every year,” Lorig says.

Shipping Euclid to Florida was a no-brainer. “This is the technology, so you can solve it.” It's something Laureijs repeats often. The technical problem is not actually a problem at ESA.

First a tear, then a celebration

Finally, the moment of truth came on July 1. “Everyone was waiting out there in the hot Florida sun.” After the launch there was an immediate party. Many of Lorigs' colleagues have traveled, sometimes with their families. Druggis: “You can also go to Disneyland there.” He also brought his children with him.

But Lloris didn't want to celebrate too early. Just wait a minute, warn your teammates. He was not able to breathe a sigh of relief until forty minutes later, when the satellite contacted the European Space Agency base in Germany. “Then I went to the party with my kids.” The atmosphere among his colleagues was special. “I shed a tear, yes.”

He was particularly impressed when he realized the extent of Euclid's work. “The satellite is made up of all kinds of bits and pieces that have been manufactured all over Europe and even in America. When you first see a satellite in a test center, you realize how many people have worked on it and how many problems have been solved by putting all these parts together.

How would Lorig have felt if, after all that work, the satellite had malfunctioned during launch, or never made a sound in space again? He didn't seem to have really thought through those disaster scenarios. The chance of something going wrong is always there. “I was confident that we had prepared everything well.”

Photo by Lars van den Brink

Amazing pictures

Two weeks after its launch, the Euclid telescope looked into space for the first time – this moment is called “first light” in jargon. The satellite images taken afterwards were amazing. For example, the “hidden galaxy” IC 342, which normally hides behind clouds of gas and dust from the Milky Way, revealed itself as a snail's shell filled with bright blue and purple sparks – stars and planets about 11 million light-years away.

Euclid itself is now located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where it will remain for the next six years. Although the launch went smoothly, scientists still have to keep their finger on the pulse. For example, there was actually a small problem with the formation of ice crystals. You don't want that on your lens if you want to demystify the biggest question in modern cosmology.

However, René Lorig will no longer contribute to this matter. He will retire in June. Other colleagues will reap the scientific benefits of Euclid. But he says it is certain that Euclid will change science permanently. “When I started out as an astronomer, science was interested in completely different things. For example, we looked at star formation. We now know a lot about that. There is an evolution in science, in thinking, in our knowledge. And at some point you just have to let it go. Within Twenty years later, there will be another relevant topic, I'm sure.

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