Missions under development or planned for the future require a steady stream of new technologies. ESA channels around 8% of its overall budget into technology R&D but our single most important and influential programme is the early-stage Technology Development Element, supported through Basic Activities.
This is the Agency’s basic ‘ideas factory’ across all areas of spaceflight, converting promising concepts into working laboratory prototypes, ready to be taken further by follow-on ESA programmes.
Projects are undertaken by European academia and industry under ESA supervision. Recent examples include an unprecedented 30% more-efficient spacecraft solar cell, an air-breathing engine for low-flying satellites, optical communications to boost data rates from deep space, parachute designs for Mars landings and a satellite whose sole mission is enabling European industry to flight-test innovative software.
Some technology development projects are undertaken specifically to meet the needs of missions to come, called ‘technology push’, systematically de-risking their development by proving essential elements work as planned.
Others take place as part of ESA’s cross-cutting initiatives focused on (a) Advanced Manufacturing, for novel materials and production processes, (b) ‘Design 2 Produce’ for digitalization of manufacturing, (c) Clean Space to safeguard the orbital and Earth environments, (d) adopting artificial intelligence and machine learning for innovative mission control techniques that enhance spacecraft and ground-station resource management and the ‘health care’ and diagnostics of the spacecraft and its ground systems, and (e) cybersecurity for secure space systems.
Next part: Setting standards for space
(Photo: Next generation solar cell with 30% efficiency)
ESA Basic Activities at Space19+
For ESA’s next Ministerial Council, Space19+, set for the end of this year, the Agency is asking Europe’s space ministers for a substantial investment for its core Basic Activities, helping to support a new generation of space missions as efficiently as possible. ESA’s Basic Activities have three main objectives: to enable the future through early stage research and development, commencing the Agency’s seamless grid of innovation; develop and maintain ESA’s common infrastructure and expertise; and, develop, preserve and disseminate knowledge for European capacity building and sustainable growth – inspiring and promoting creativity.