Technology preparation (developing for the future)
Scientists always want their new spacecraft to discover things that have never been seen before and to extend their analytical capabilities beyond anything already achieved. This is natural, because science is a progressive subject that must advance on what has gone before, but it can pose tough challenges for engineers and spacecraft designers.
Building and launching a spacecraft is costly. Once the prime industrial contractor is ready to begin construction, it is essential that all the technology, however advanced or not, is ready and waiting to be integrated into the spacecraft. If such technologies or components are not ready when they are needed, spacecraft costs can rapidly increase.
In response to this need, ESA sets out to identify the key areas of technological research that are required to make future missions possible and then waits until everything is ready before starting to build the spacecraft. This approach began with Mars Express and proved so successful that its lessons are being applied to all future missions.
Once a necessary technology is identified, a programme of development begins. This is handled by the Research and Science Support Department at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in The Netherlands and often it is conducted in collaboration with industrial partners.
The SMART programme is another crucial aspect of ESA’s planning strategy. It is a way of building and testing new technology in space on smaller, more cost-efficient missions, before they are required for ESA's more expensive, cornerstone missions. SMART stands for Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology. The first mission was SMART-1, a spacecraft that was sent to the Moon to primarily test an advanced form of space propulsion called an 'ion engine', as well as many other new software and hardware innovations.
Last update: 6 September 2012