By Gabriel Beauvallet-Bauchet, 8th generation student
ESA member states and cooperating states; Source: esa.int
What are the Space Agencies present in Europe? What is the ESA (European Space Agency)?What are their main tasks and how do they work? These are questions that may have come once to your mind before… or only by reading them here now! Today, we will share with you the answers we found about this interesting topic.
As the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said about Space: « The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. » This is totally understandable, because Pascal didn’t know how to describe space and what it was made of. But you as a reader of this article, don’t be afraid! Just rely on us to explore together this vast area of Space search, organisation and policies.
So first of all: what is Space? Space is defined by the Kármán line convention, which tells that the limit of Outer Space is 100km above sea level.Reaching such an altitude and staying above it requires the deployment of great scientific and organisational resources. These resources and their management are carried out by space agencies. A space agency is a national or supranational body responsible for coordinating all or part of the space activities of a country or group of countries that have decided to mutualise some of their space activities.The best known are – among others – the NASA (for the United States), Roscosmos (for Russia) and the ESA (for Europe).The involvement of space agencies varies widely. They may be very light structures charged solely with ensuring the coherence of space policy by selecting projects and monitoring their implementation or, as in the case of NASA, be heavily involved in research, design and production of launchers and satellites.
The case of ESA and the European Union is a very interesting one, because the network of agencies on its soil is very dense. Indeed, in Europe the two levels of organisation – national and supranational – coexist... And this is a unique phenomenon in the world! In fact, 15 of the countries of the European Union have their own space agency. We will mention here only the CNES (Centre National d'EtudesSpatiales) in France, the DLR (DeutschesZentrumfürLuft- und Raumfahrt) in Germany and the PAK (PolskaAgencjaKosmiczna) in Poland.All these national agencies work independently of each other on space issues chosen by their respective countries and with their own means and funding.In addition, the ESA is the intergovernmental agency responsible for coordinating the space projects conducted jointly by 22 European countries,including all the countries of the European Union, Switzerland, Norwayand, until further notice, the UK.Signed by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the Convention on the European Space Agency founded ESA on 30th May 1975, replacing the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO). Often, the work is articulated with space agencies from the member states, as they are able to provide a support structure for ESA's various specialised centres, and are able to assist them if necessary. When countries do not have their own space agency, they participate by directly allocating funds and experts to ESA-led projects. After selection and on the basis of a call for tenders, research and development work on spacecraft is carried out at the universities, institutes and industries of the member countries, applying the principle of "geographical return": the agency's expenditure in each country is in proportion to their contribution.
The Agency's activities cover the whole field of space: science with astrophysics, exploration of the Solar System, study of the Sun and fundamental physics; study and observation of the Earth with specialised satellites; development of launchers; human spaceflight through its participation in the International Space Station and Orion; satellite navigation with the Galileo programme; space telecommunications, for which the Agency finances the development of new concepts; research in the field of space technologies. ESA also participates in space programmes initiated by other space agencies.All this requires substantial funds, and ESA's budget in 2020 amounted to €6.68 billion.The EU founds a bit more than one quarter of the total, and the main contributing countries are France (giving 23.4% of the funds), Germany (21.3%) and Italy (13%).
The agency's facilities are distributed among centres all over Europe: -its headquarters are in Paris; - the science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands; - the ESA Centre for Earth Observation is located in Frascati, Italy; - the ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany; - the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) is situated in Cologne, Germany; - the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT), a research institute created in 2009, is located in Harwell, England; - the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Madrid, Spain.
The ESA also plays a major role in maintaining the Kourou space base in French Guiana, from where most of its launches take place.
The Agency is headed by a Director General. The Agency's space programme guidelines are validated by the European Space Agency Council, which meets at a frequency determined by the decisions to be taken. The Council is made up of one representative from each Member State. For strategic decision-making, generally once every two to three years, the Council is made up of the ministers responsible for space activities in their countries. Each Member State has one vote, regardless of its size or financial contribution. This right to vote does not apply when the subject of the decision concerns an optional programme in which the country does not participate.
ESA is, of course, bound by existing space law, which consists mainly of the five core UN treaties signed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and the decisions of the UN General Assembly on space matters.ESA is therefore strongly linked (from a financial point of view) to the states that make it up and support it, but enjoys freedom of action with regard to certain more or less controversial space policies. For example, its commitment to space debris management and its total transparency regarding the dispatch of observation satellites are the result of the application of clear internal agency policies. Moreover, certain controversies persist in the space field: that of the aquilian responsibility of states for any activity carried out by their nationals in space, as well as the thorny question of the ownership of space resources... If they were to be exploited one day! The treaties mentioned before and the resolutions already provide a legal framework for some of these controversies... But on the other hand, these “laws” are far from containing only self-executive norms, and the role of space agencies is thus to interpret these laws and resolutions in order to achieve policies that are consistent with space law. For ESA, this is the role of its legal analysis and expertise centre: the “European Centre for Space Law”.
Thus, the functioning of the Agency, although based on clear principles and transparent decision-making processes, is currently one of Europe's spearheads in the field of scientific research.