The General Studies Programme (GSP) interfaces in different ways with all of ESA's programmes, but its main role is to act as a "think tank", laying the groundwork for the agency’s future activities.
The feasibility studies undertaken by the GSP give the ESA member states and the scientific community the necessary information on which to base their decisions about the implementation of new programmes and the future direction of space activities.
The objectives of the general studies programme are:
- Contribute to the formulation of the overall ESA strategy;
- Study feasibility for selection of new mission concepts;
- Prepare/demonstrate the case for approval and funding of new optional projects/programmes;
- Support the evolution of ESA by analysing and testing new working methodologies.
A remarkable diversity of topics is investigated, running across the entire spectrum of the agency’s activities.
Each study usually lasts one to two years, sufficient time for in-depth exploration of each subject. 30 to 50 new studies are typically initiated during each cycle.
As from 2005*, to be in line with Agenda 2007, the GSP was organised around three domains:
- Inspirational activities: Sciences (Earth-, Space-, Life- and Physical-) and Human and Robotic Exploration.
- Utilitarian activities: developing space systems to support public services (meteorology, environment, disaster management, education, energy, agriculture, etc.) and commercial offerings (telecom, navigation and imagery) for the benefit of the society.
- Basic activities, required to develop and maintain the fundamental elements on which a space policy depends for its implementation: access to space, technology base, industrial capabilities, ground facilities, context analysis and new working methodologies.
Activities included in the plan 2005-2006 and 2007-2008 are structured according to these three domains. For the upcoming 2009-2010 cycle, these domains will be updated to reflect ESA's current strategic priorities stemming from Agenda 2011, ESA's Long Term Plan (LTP) and the European Space Policy (ESP).
The GSP studies are selected from proposals submitted by ESA staff. These proposals may relate to all areas of ESA activity, with the result that ESA staff act as the main "discoverers" and "filters" of new ideas in the European space sector.
GSP activities also reflect the views and suggestions of industry gathered through workshops, visits and hearings.
One of the GSP's objectives is to achieve a balanced participation between industry and experts in all member states. The majority of the studies are undertaken by companies of all sizes and by academia under the technical guidance of staff from the various ESA directorates. The success of the General Studies Programme is largely due to these non-ESA organisations.
Established and supported by the GSP, ESA's Advanced Concept Team operates a specific tool named "Ariadna" to facilitate access to the GSP for the academic world.
* All GSP plans until 2004 were organised around four Study Blocks:
I. LONG TERM POLICY This includes all activities dealing with long-term strategy, with particular emphasis on European options for major new initiatives, such as future launch options, studies of space weather and an investigation of the threat from near-Earth objects.
II. SCIENCE and EXPLORATION In addition to ‘classical’ Space Science, this includes Earth Observation, Fluid, Life and Materials Sciences studies, together with any other scientific discipline that may benefit from space access.
III. APPLICATIONS This includes all studies concerned with fostering new applications that can improve our daily lives and contribute to economic growth, such as telecommunications, navigation, and monitoring of environmental hazards.
IV. INFRASTRUCTURE This broad theme includes all activities related to the development and evolution of ESA’s ground and in-orbit infrastructure, including launchers. It also includes initial surveys of over-the-horizon technologies that may eventually be pursued under the Basic Technology Research Programme.
The correspondence between this and the classification used from 2005 is the following:
- Inspirational activities: correspond to the old study block "Science and Exploration"
- Utilitarian activities: correspond to the old study block "Applications"
- Basic activities: correspond to the old study blocks "Infrastructure" and "Long Term Policy"