The ESA Propulsion Laboratory tests methods of controlling the motion of spacecraft once they have reached space. The violent firing of chemical rockets remains our sole route off the planet, but once up in orbit, the ability to produce precisely controlled, lower-energy thrusts becomes very important to meet mission goals.
In one sense all unmanned missions can be considered 'robotic' spacecraft, but at ESA the term has a more specific meaning. Robot systems are those that have mobility and the ability to manipulate objects, plus the flexibility to perform these tasks autonomously or by remote control.
The ESA Human Robot Interaction Laboratory (before 2017 known as the Telerobotics & Haptics Lab) is an engineering research laboratory that supports research, development and validation of human-robot interaction means, in particular in the aspects of telerobotics, mechatronics and haptics.
The critical combination of robotics dynamic contact and guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) have become an increasingly important aspect of European space missions.
The work of the Optics Laboratory relates to optical systems –instruments or equipment based on the interaction of matter with light. The word 'optics' comes from the Greek for eye, but the Laboratory's testing extends beyond human vision, encompassing a wide range of electromagnetic radiation from thermal infrared to energetic ultraviolet wavelengths.
These laboratory facilities are focused on research associated with the placing of life into space, including life support and experimental biological payloads. They play a similar role for in-orbit physical science experiments. They are equipped to investigate and test a wide variety of relevant factors, down to the prolonged effects of low- or hyper-gravities.
ESA’s Mechanical Systems Laboratory performs thermal and mechanical testing for small-scale space equipment and payloads: satellite equipment and instruments must be thermally controlled to withstand the very harsh environment of space. They must also survive the tough ride to orbit. The test methods are thermal cycling and thermal balance in vacuum or at ambient pressure and vibration testing in sine and random.