The development of technology belongs, along with access to space, to the class of enabling activities performed by ESA. The Agency also conducts scientific and application activities.
Space systems facilitate scientific research about space, the performing of science and technology experiments in space and the making of observations from space. Mars Express found water on Mars. Huygens sent to Earth the ‘sights and sounds’ of Titan. Planck will soon show us information about the origins of the Universe. The Columbus module of the International Space Station will allow scientists the opportunity to perform research on life sciences, materials, and fluids, for example. From space, satellites such as Envisat continuously provide data that are essential to progress in the Earth sciences.
Space systems are at the basis of applications used in daily life. Watching television pictures of distant events via telecommunication satellites or obtaining accurate position data using satellite navigation systems are routine. Modern weather forecasting, climate surveys and environment monitoring cannot be performed without satellites.
Satellites are complex and expensive. They have to provide outstanding performance, often without interruption, for many years – and do it in the unfriendly environment of space. This is only possible if the enabling technologies have been thoroughly mastered.
Technology development is also required for the ground segments of space systems, for the operation of the satellites and for the exploitation of the missions.
The development of the technologies that made possible both the missions just described and many other scientific achievements and applications was initiated years earlier within space technology programmes.
Why technology programmes?
Technology research and development programmes are the means to acquire the technical capabilities to deploy space systems and fulfil their missions. It is a well known fact that while most of the cost of a project is incurred in the later phases (C/D – design and development), this cost is drastically affected by decisions made and preparatory actions taken in the early phases (0/A/B – conceptual study / preliminary analysis / design definition). Strong and timely technology development is essential to contain project costs.
The European space technology strategy is aimed at pursuing five main, top-level objectives:
- prepare for and enable future European space programmes and ensure coherence of the technology development schedule (ad-hoc maturity level) for maximum use by projects in different fields of science and applications (for example: science, Earth observation and exploration)
- foster innovation in the architectures of space systems, identification of disruptive technologies, developments of new concepts
- support the competitiveness of industry in the European institutional market and in global commercial markets
- ensure European technological non-independence and the availability of European sources for critical technologies
- leverage technological progress and innovations from outside the space sector to use and adapt them to design new space systems (spin-in); foster technology transfer from space to non-space applications (spin-off)
ESA technology programmes
The technology development process extends from the conception of the idea to the demonstration of its performance in an operational environment. The various stages of development require different interactions with the target application. Early stages can be implemented in basic programmes not necessarily connected to a particular application. Later stages are more intimately related to the intended utilisation.
Technology development is therefore implemented in ESA by means of a set of programmes including the Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP) and Specific Technology Programmes (STPs). The TRP covers the very early step of technology development, to demonstrate the feasibility or validity of a candidate technology. It allows the exploration of a variety of technologies within a comparatively limited budget.
The STPs further mature the technology through pre-developments, either for ESA projects or for other European projects, and for establishing competitive industrial capabilities.
The intention is to have the technology at the appropriate Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at each phase of the project.