European Space Agency

Although we don’t often think that way, probably the biggest contributions that the Old Continent has ever made to human history were the European explorers and scientists. Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Polo, Vespucci – all of them looked beyond the horizon and into the stars and wondered how to reach them, how to cross frontier after frontier and learn the secrets of the universe. And that they did – if not by themselves, then with others who stood on their “giants’ shoulders”. And although humankind was finally able to cross “the final frontier” – the cosmos – it was the USA and Russia that really pioneered space research and exploration, while Europe seemed to have grown comfortable with our “pale blue dot”, not so eager to leave home anymore. As a result, when you hear of a new space launch, a new discovery, or a mission to Mars, the first thing that springs to mind is the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But have you ever heard about its Atlantic sibling – the European Space Agency (ESA)? There is a chance you haven’t. And that has to change.

The European Space Agency is an international organisation that currently has 22 member states across Europe and employs 2,200 people from different nationalities and specialisations. Its headquarters are located in Paris, but it has several sites in six other member states, including its base, the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. The beginnings of the organisation can be traced back to 1964, when its predecessors, the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) came into life. Eleven years later, in 1975, convention on the establishment of the European Space Agency had been signed. Since then, ESA has carried out and participated in countless projects aimed at space exploration and research. As they put it on their website: “The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.”

But what does ESA actually do? “ESA’s job is to draw up the European space programme and carry it through. ESA’s programmes are designed to find out more about Earth, its immediate space environment, our Solar System and the Universe, as well as to develop satellite-based technologies and services, and to promote European industries. ESA also works closely with space organisations outside Europe.” What exactly does that entail? For such a big organisation it is impossible to describe all the numerous projects in a single article, especially since many (if not most) of ESA’s projects would require complicated scientific explanations. Still, a lot of their work can be extremely interesting and inspiring, even for “space amateurs” who do not hold a Ph.D in Advanced Physics. The focus of this article will be on three such examples.

ESA’s most famous project was the Rosetta Mission. In March 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft was launched from Earth with the goal of being the first of its kind to land on a flying comet. Ten years later, on the 12th of November 2014, the scientific world and internauts from all around the globe held their breaths in anticipation of whether Rosetta’s robotic lander Philae would successfully touch the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Despite some technical problems, the operation was a huge success and for the first time ever, humanity could say it was able to land on a comet. Since then, Philae has sent invaluable information to Earth, including pictures and data on the internal, chemical composition of the cosmic body, which will help us learn more about the origins of the Solar System. If you want to find out more about the mission, click here. There is also a blog devoted to the Rosetta Mission and an interactive 3D Solar System map, which shows the locations of the Rosetta spacecraft and the comet on every day since the launch.

The Galileo Project is ESA’s and the European Commission’s (EC) ongoing project that will make Europe join the group of players with their own global navigation satellite system. By 2020, ESA is supposed to have thirty fully operational navigation satellites in the Earth’s orbit, with accuracy up to centimeters due to a doubled amount of satellites that will take your position with coverage of high latitudes, allowing for the system’s use as far as the northern reaches of Norway! Since the 17th of December 2015, twelve satellites are already in place, and the first services are to commence by the end of 2016. According to the EC, the satellite navigation market will be worth 250 billion euros by the year 2022, and today 6% to 7% of the EU economy (around 950 billion euros) is dependent on navigation satellites. Therefore, Galileo’s goal is twofold: to make Europe independent of American and Russian satellite navigation systems, and to achieve social and economic gains from the project’s exploitation (about 90 billion euros in the first twenty years of operation, both directly from revenues and indirectly from improved system efficiencies). Additionally, Galileo’s cutting-edge technology will give Europe, aside from improved accuracy and coverage, the ability to compete and even outperform its American and Russian counterparts. If you want to find out more about Galileo Project, click here.

Any proper space agency should, on top of all the research and science, try to send humans into space. On top of participation in the International Space Station (ISS) programme (check out this video by ESA to find out how the toilet on ISS works) and operating an extremely remote base in Antarctica that imitates life on other worlds, ESA is also helping NASA with its Orion spacecraft. Orion is a new spacecraft that is aimed at carrying humans further from home than ever before – beyond the Moon, to asteroids, and possibly even to Mars. ESA’s contribution to the project is the European Service Module, which they compare to a train engine; after launching it into the Earth’s orbit, it will pull the capsule with the astronauts and it will provide the crew with essentials such as power, water, air (oxygen and nitrogen), as well as a nice temperature. Thus, Europe is actively participating in mankind’s attempts to conquer space. If you want to find out more about Orion, go to ESA’s or NASA’s webpages about the project.

An organisation that is involved with technological research and space exploration of the highest level certainly requires a lot of funds. With how much budget does ESA operate? In 2016, ESA’s budget is 5.25 billion euros. ESA’s member states contribute almost 70% to this amount, proportionally to their GDP. Although ESA is not part of the European Union, almost all of the agency’s member states are also members of the EU. On top of that, ESA cooperates closely with the EU on projects such as Galileo and, in turn, the EU provides about 20% of ESA’s budget. Of course, 5.25 billion euros seems like an astronomical amount (pun intended), but for a space agency it’s actually ridiculously little. Considering that ESA member states have about 500 million citizens in total, it’s about 10 euros from each citizen for an organisation that develops amazing new technologies, builds up staggering projects that lead us into the future, and really lets us touch the stars. In comparison, NASA’s budget for the year 2016 is 18.5 billion dollars (about 16.6 billion euros). With the United States’ population of about 320 million, that’s 58 dollars (about 52 euros) per person! At the same time, many scientists, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, have been arguing that NASA “isn’t as much an expenditure as it is an investment”, and should therefore receive much more federal funding that it currently is – not only because of its importance in exploring mankind’s future, but also because its innovation is crucial to the economy as a whole. Once again, Europe lags far behind when it comes to research, innovation, and forward-thinking. That is especially saddening since our economy really needs boost and innovation, and outer space is quite literally our (not too distant) future. We’d better be prepared when the time comes.

The European Space Agency is certainly among the best projects that have happened to the European continent in the past century. Its effects, however, do and will continue to positively affect people all around the world. Through projects like the Rosetta Mission, ESA helps us learn about yesterday and understand today. Through Galileo, it improves today. Through Orion, it reaches towards tomorrow. ESA’s mission should be seen as an investment, and as such, no expense should be spared to further its projects. And this is not only about innovation, technology, or economy; this is also about the very survival of our species. Earth is our home, but it is a fragile home, and the only way of ensuring the continuation of mankind is to leave this planet and spread – or, in economic terms, to diversify the risk. And there isn’t much time! We should all realise what’s at stake here. We should stop marching and instead start running towards the future. Space programmes such as the European Space Agency are giving off the right example by doing exactly that and, therefore, they are something we should all be proud of – not just as Europeans, but as humans.