Mission development is supported not only by specialist technical teams but also through a suite of well-equipped laboratories at ESA establishments, especially ESTEC in the Netherlands, and across Member States. These focus on all aspects of the space environment, materials and component testing, instrumentation and propulsion testing and the development of innovative spaceflight operations tools and techniques, based on the latest artificial/virtual reality tools.
These unique resources, supported through Basic Activities, include a wide variety of test chambers, a powerful array of microscopes and precision measuring devices, a CT scanner for components, a laser-based simulator recreating the corrosive ‘atomic oxygen’ encountered atop Earth’s atmosphere and the flattest floor in Europe, used for testing microgravity behaviour in two dimensions.
For missions, the labs check each and every item, instrument and piece of software to be used in space both individually and collectively, verifying their suitability for space by simulating orbital conditions as closely as possible. If an item fails during development or testing – from an individual wire split to a software anomaly – then detailed analysis is performed to find the route cause.
Test facilities elsewhere at ESA ensure a satellite’s ‘ground segment’ – the complete chain of hardware and software needed on the ground to control a mission in orbit – can be simulated in a safe, offline environment, providing mission teams with ways to test and validate commands and onboard procedures before being sent up to a functioning satellite.
Next part: Europe's largest satellite test centre
(Photo: ESA's Materials and Electrical Components Lab)
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.