A development full-scale model of the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe greeted those attending the General Assembly of the European Geophysical Society when they arrived at Nice airport last week. The model symbolised ESA’s direct involvement in a very large number of the issues being discussed at the EGS’s millennium conference on Earth, Planetary and Solar System Sciences which attracted 4500 participants from 50 nations between 24-29 April. Many of the principal investigators and scientists working on current and future ESA missions were present, as were representatives of other space agencies.

Whilst rain and high winds swept the town and its all but serene Bay of the Angels, the town’s Acropolis congress centre hosted several hundred presentations and working sessions covering the Association’s eight fields of interest: Solid Earth Geophysics, Geodesy, Hydrology, Oceans and Atmosphere, Solar Terrestrial Sciences, Planetary Sciences, Non-linear Geophysics and Natural Hazards.

The EGS President, AndrÈ Berger, stressed this multi-disciplinary nature of the Association and the cross-fertilisation that results from such gatherings: “It is increasingly important to view human existence on Earth in its broader context. However we can not limit this wider environment to say an arbitrary 100 km, or 1000 km above our planet’s surface. That is why a society like EGS also includes planetary science so that we can better understand our Earth by observing, for instance solar activity and by studying other planets.”

The General Assembly spent many hours reviewing the data from current space missions, and the science objectives of future ones. For instance, participants heard the excellent news from the joint NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens probe, today halfway through its journey to explore Saturn and its moon Titan. Participating scientists were particularly pleased with the wealth of scientific data that has already been obtained by the “freebies” of this seven-year journey, namely the two swingbys of Venus and Earth. They also expressed great excitement at the coming Jovian encounter at the end of this year, when for the first time two spacecraft will be able to simultaneously observe Jupiter at close quarters.

Other sessions at EGS examined the upcoming planetary missions notably those to Mars and Mercury and coming lunar missions. The Mars sessions heard about the latest progress on building the instruments for ESA’s Mars Express, ambitious plans for experiments to fly on future missions, and some of the latest results from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor which is now in orbit around the red planet.

The prospect of a future mission to Mercury, ESA’s Bepi-Colombo, attracted many delegates with a wide range of research interests. BepiColombo, which is to become one of the Cornerstone mission of the Agency, is a multidisciplinary mission which will study the geology and the geophysics of Mercury as well its violent interaction with the solar wind. The mission includes a 3-axis stabilised spacecrat for the remote sensing of the planet; a spinner devoted to the study of the Hermean space environment including its magnetosphere; and a lander which is supposed to validate the remote sensing data with geochemical and geophysical ground truths.

An open session on lunar exploration heard the latest findings from past missions, such as NASA’s Clementine and looked forward to the small fleet of orbiters and probes that will be visiting the Moon in the next few years: ESA’s SMART-1, closely followed by two Japanese missions. For the first time since the SMART-1 mission and payload were aproved in November 1999, 15 papers were given for the community at large on the ongoing preparation of the SMART-1 spacecraft, technology, instruments and science.

Each presentation at EGS 2000 was the occasion for the world’s leading experts in each domain to compare their ideas, objectives and technologies to achieve success in space whilst always remembering that man’s existence is still firmly anchored here on our planet. Indeed the scientific programme covered a multitude of subjects of “immediate concern” on Earth such as natural risks (from floods to earthquakes) and global issues, for instance water policy for the future, and climate variability.

On the final day of the conference, as if to reward participants for their assiduity, the Sun finally brought its warmth to the French Riviera – and Nice where EGS will be returning for its next General Assembly in March next year.