Astronomy - European Space Agency


European Space Agency

After World War II, many European scientists left Western Europe to work with the United States.

Although the 1950s boom made it possible for Western European countries to invest in research and specifically in space-related activities, Western European scientists realised solely national projects would not be able to compete with the two main superpowers.

The Western European nations decided to have two agencies: one concerned with developing a launch system, European Launch Development Organization (ELDO), and the other the precursor of the European Space Agency, European Space Research Organisation (ESRO).

The latter was established on 20 March 1964. From 1968 to 1972, ESRO launched seven research satellites.

ESA in its current form was founded with the ESA Convention in 1975, when ESRO was merged with ELDO.

ESA had ten founding member states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an intergovernmental organisation with now 22-member states dedicated to the exploration of space.

Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a worldwide staff of about 2,000 and an annual budget of about €5.25 billion (2016).

The treaty establishing the European Space Agency reads:

ESA's purpose shall be to provide for, and to promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European States in space research and technology and their space applications, with a view to their being used for scientific purposes and for operational space applications systems.

ESA launched its first major scientific mission in 1975, Cos-B, a space probe monitoring gamma-ray emission in the universe, which was first worked on by European Space Research Organisation ESRO.

ESA collaborated with NASA on the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), the world's first high-orbit telescope, which was launched in 1978 and operated successfully for 18 years.

Cos-B Space Probe

International Ultraviolet Explorer

A number of successful Earth-orbit projects followed, and in 1986 ESA began Giotto, its first deep-space mission. The spacecraft flew by and studied Halley's Comet and in doing so became the first spacecraft to make closeup observations of a comet.

Hipparcos, a star-mapping mission, was a scientific satellite, launched in 1989 and operated until 1993. It was the first space experiment devoted to precision astrometry, the accurate measurement of the positions of celestial objects in the sky.





The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was launched on a Lockheed Martin Atlas II AS launch vehicle on December 2, 1995, to study the Sun, and has discovered over 3000 comets.

Ulysses a robotic space probe whose primary mission was to orbit the Sun and study it at all latitudes. It was launched in 1990 and the Hubble Space Telescope were all jointly carried out with NASA.


Later scientific missions in co-operation with NASA include the Cassini–Huygens space probe, to which ESA contributed by building the Titan landing module Huygens.

At the time ESA was formed, its main goals did not encompass human space flight; rather it considered itself to be primarily a scientific research organisation for unmanned space exploration in contrast to its American and Soviet counterparts.

The German Ulf Merbold is considered the first ESA astronaut to fly into space.

He participated in the STS-9 Space Shuttle mission that included the first use of the European-built Spacelab in 1983.

STS-9 marked the beginning of an extensive ESA/NASA joint partnership that included dozens of space flights of ESA astronauts in the following years.

Ulf Merbold

Some of these missions with Spacelab were fully funded and organizationally and scientifically controlled by ESA (such as two missions by Germany and one by Japan) with European astronauts as full crew members rather than guests on board.

Beside paying for Spacelab flights and seats on the shuttles, ESA continued its human space flight co-operation with the Soviet Union and later Russia, including numerous visits to Mir.

During the latter half of the 1980s, European human space flights changed from being the exception to routine and therefore, in 1990, the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany was established.

It selects and trains prospective astronauts and is responsible for the co-ordination with international partners, especially with regard to the International Space Station.

European Astronaut Centre In Cologne

In the summer of 2008, ESA started to recruit new astronauts so that final selection would be due in spring 2009.

Almost 10,000 people registered as astronaut candidates before registration ended in June 2008. 8,413 fulfilled the initial application criteria.

Of the applicants, 918 were chosen to take part in the first stage of psychological testing, which narrowed down the field to 192.

After two-stage psychological tests and medical evaluation in early 2009, as well as formal interviews, six new members of the European Astronaut Corps were selected - five men and one woman.

ESA has a fleet of different launch vehicles in service with which it competes in all sectors of the launch market. ESA's fleet consists of three major rocket designs: Ariane 5, Soyuz-2 and Vega.

The Ariane 5 rocket is ESA's primary launcher. It has been in service since 1997 and replaced Ariane 4.

Two different variants are currently in use. The heaviest and most used version, the Ariane 5 ECA, delivers two communications satellites of up to 10 tonnes into geostationary transfer orbit GTO.

It failed during its first test flight in 2002, but has since made 71 consecutive successful flights (as of March 2016).

Ariane 5

The other version, Ariane 5 ES, was used to launch the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to the International Space Station (ISS) and will be used to launch four Galileo navigational satellites at a time.

Soyuz-2 (also called the Soyuz-ST or Soyuz-STK) is a Russian medium payload launcher (ca. 3 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit GTO) which was brought into ESA service in October 2011.

ESA entered into a €340 million joint venture with the Russian Federal Space Agency over the use of the Soyuz launcher.

ESA benefits because it gains a medium payload launcher, complementing its fleet while saving on development costs.


Vega is ESA's carrier for small satellites. Developed by seven ESA members led by Italy, it is capable of carrying a payload with a mass of between 300 and 1500 kg to an altitude of 700 km, for low polar orbit. Its maiden launch was on 13 February 2012.

The rocket has three solid propulsion stages and a liquid propulsion upper stage for accurate orbital insertion and the ability to place multiple payloads into different orbits.



ESA's space flight programme includes human spaceflight (mainly through participation in the International Space Station programme); the launch and operation of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon; Earth observation, science and telecommunication; designing launch vehicles; and maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.

Guiana Space Centre

In robotic science mission and exploration missions, NASA has been ESA's main partner. Cassini–Huygens was a joint NASA-ESA mission, along with the Infrared Space Observatory, and others. Also the Hubble space telescope is a joint project of NASA and ESA.

Future ESA-NASA joint projects include the James Webb Space Telescope and the proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

ESA entered into a major joint venture with Russia in the form of the Confined Spaces Training and Support Services (CSTS).

The preparation of French Guiana spaceport for launches of Soyuz-2 rockets and other projects including purposed first flight to Mars.

With India, ESA agreed to send instruments into space aboard the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chandrayaan-1 in 2008. ESA is also co-operating with Japan, the most notable current project in collaboration with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is the BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

Since China has started to invest more money into space activities, the Chinese Space Agency has sought international partnerships.

ESA is, beside the Russian Space Agency, one of its most important partners.

Recently the two space agencies cooperated in the development of the Double Star Mission.

ESA has developed the Automated Transfer Vehicle for ISS resupply. Each ATV has a cargo capacity of 16,903 lb. The first ATV, Jules Verne, was launched on 9 March 2008 and on 3 April 2008 successfully docked with the ISS.

This manoeuvre, considered a major technical feat, involved using automated systems to allow the ATV to track the ISS, moving at 27,000 km/h, and attach itself with an accuracy of 2 cm.

Automated Transfer Vehicle

European Life and Physical Sciences research on board the International Space Station (ISS) is mainly based on the European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences in Space programme that was initiated in 2001.

In May 2007, 29 European countries expressed their support for the European Space Policy in a resolution of the Space Council, unifying the approach of ESA with those of the European Union and their member states.

Prepared jointly by the European Commission and ESA’s Director General Johann Dietrich Woerner, the European Space Policy sets out a basic vision and strategy for the space sector and addresses issues such as security and defence, access to space and exploration.

ESA is not an agency or body of the European Union (EU), and has non-EU countries (Norway, and Switzerland) as members. There are however ties between the two, with various agreements in place and being worked on, to define the legal status of ESA with regard to the EU.

There are common goals between ESA and the EU. ESA has an EU liaison office in Brussels. On certain projects, the EU and ESA co-operate, such as the upcoming Galileo satellite navigation system.