About Space Science

About space science

What is space science?

Science gives mankind inspiration and aspiration. Space science makes us look outwards from our planet, towards the stars.

Space science tries to answer the ultimate questions…

  • How did our Earth and our Solar System evolve?
  • Where are we in the Universe?
  • Where are we going?
  • Where did life come from, and are we alone?

By studying alien worlds, such as Venus, Mars, or Saturn’s moon Titan, we can place our own in context. ESA’s exploration of the Solar System is focused on understanding Earth’s relationship with the other planets, an essential stepping stone for exploring the wider Universe. In the next decade, our research will shed new light on planets around other stars. Detailed knowledge of our own Solar System will be invaluable in the interpretation of these new results.

The study of the Sun is becoming an increasingly important ‘mirror’ in which to reflect our analysis of Earth’s changing climate. The Sun’s light helps to maintain our world’s temperature, but it also produces a magnetic field that shields our world from deadly cosmic rays coming from the far depths of space. Its influence on our everyday lives cannot be overstated. Neither can ESA’s contribution to our understanding of the effects that the Sun has on us all.

What about the origin of the Universe itself? If we could ‘see’ microwaves, the night sky would glow with the very first light ever released into space. This was given out by the Big Bang – the event in which the Universe was created. Studying this background of light reveals not only the origin of the Universe but, amazingly, the answers about how the Universe will end. It could tell us whether the Universe will expand forever or collapse in on itself, thousands of millions of years from now.

Studying space science at its largest scale therefore provides some of the deepest insights into physics on the smallest scale. ESA Science is now providing access to the largest science laboratory we have ever known: our Universe!

Why does ESA do space science?

Space science is a strategic asset. With it, ESA ensures technological independence, it safeguards a European cultural identity, it supports a science-based society, and clearly demonstrates European capability and vision.

ESA does what individual European nations cannot do on their own. Scientists from European nations can function at world-class level in their specialist fields. Working in this way gives a framework for national programmes, and allows integration of the best of national approaches into one joint European approach.

What is the ESA Science Programme for?

The Science Programme underpins ESA. It is the only mandatory element of the ESA programme, and is therefore both a flagship and symbol for the Agency. It enhances European capability in space science and applications, builds European industrial technical capacity, and brings together European national space programmes.

What is new in ESA Science?

ESA Science has a ‘Cosmic Vision’. We are now planning for a different future, where it is impractical and costly to proceed mission by mission. For a more practical and cost-effective approach, future missions will be no longer be processed one by one but linked in a new ‘programme approach’. We will be developing spacecraft architectures that satisfy more than one mission, reducing interfaces, and identifying common functions across spacecraft payloads and service modules.

Where is space science carried out?

To make the dreams of our space scientists come true, ESA staff and contractors work at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), Noordwijk in The Netherlands to design and manage the building of spacecraft and their instruments in European industry and academia. The components are usually then brought together and tested under space conditions at ESTEC, before being launched from ESA's spaceport near Kourou in French Guiana. After launch, the spacecraft are operated from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) at Darmstadt in Germany, while the scientific instruments are operated from the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) at Villanueva de Cañada in Spain. From ESAC, the Director of Science & Robotic Exploration, Prof Alvaro Giménez Cañete, oversees policy and the overall shape of the Science Programme, as well as the Robotic Exploration Programme, aimed at European exploration of Mars. Beyond the main centres, ESA science staff are also deployed elsewhere, including the USA, Germany, and Belgium.

Last update: 31 July 2012

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