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The ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter is approaching the closest point to the Sun in its current orbit © ESA

“Space, the final frontier” – this iconic phrase from the opening sequence of the popular TV series “Star Trek” has often been used to introduce the idea of space exploration as the last great frontier for mankind.

According to international space law, outer space itself is considered the “province of all mankind”, and the Outer Space Treaty (1967) stipulates that the exploration and utilisation of outer space should benefit all countries on Earth. The launch and operation of spacecraft, scientific research and the utilisation of space resources should be conducted in accordance with international regulations to ensure the peaceful, equitable and responsible use of outer space.

Throughout history, since ancient times, space has fascinated many peoples and inspired them to explore it more closely. People studied the movements of the planets and sometimes attributed mystical, religious or symbolic significance to them.

Ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, China and India developed special systems for observing and recording celestial phenomena. Ancient astronomers drew maps of the sky, analysed the movements of the stars, predicted astronomical events such as solar eclipses and developed the first calendars based on the movements of the planets.

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One of the two MUL.APIN (the plough star) clay tablets with two columns of inscriptions © British Museum

It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to have a type of astronomical record, the Mul.Apin, in which the positions of the stars and constellations were catalogued. It is also believed that the ancient Egyptians orientated their pyramids according to certain stars and planets. Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Aristotle and Ptolemy made significant contributions to the understanding of space. Hipparchus is known for his work cataloguing the position of the stars and introducing the idea of equinoxes. In ancient China, astronomical observations were made for the purposes of timekeeping, agriculture and astrology. Chinese astronomers also mentioned special events such as comets or solar eclipses in their texts and developed advanced calendars based on lunar and solar cycles.

All these ancient records and studies laid the foundation for the incredible development of astronomy in our modern age. Many nations have been professionally involved in space, and the amounts invested in this field today are staggering, a gratifying testament to the importance that space has and can achieve.

Today, planets, the moon, stars and galaxies are providing valuable insights into their composition, evolution and behaviour, improving our understanding of the universe and fundamental laws of physics. Space exploration is driving the development of new technologies and engineering solutions. Many technologies originally developed for space missions, such as satellite communications, GPS navigation or medical imaging, have found applications in everyday life, improving the quality of life for people on Earth. Space-based instruments and satellites allow us to monitor the Earth’s environment, track climate change, detect natural disasters and manage natural resources more efficiently, which is crucial for environmental protection, disaster preparedness, agriculture and urban planning.

Today, it is also assumed that the exploration offers the possibility of tapping into and utilising extraterrestrial resources such as water, minerals and metals, perhaps enabling sustainable human settlements off Earth in the future. By exploring and possibly colonising other planets, we could reduce the risks of global catastrophes such as asteroid impacts or environmental disasters and ensure the continued existence of humanity.

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Yuri Gagarin on his way to the launch pad ©ESA

However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that humans succeeded in entering space for the first time. On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for around 108 minutes on board the Vostok 1 spacecraft, marking an important milestone in space exploration and the beginning of manned space travel. This was soon followed by the first landing on the moon by NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. On 20 July 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” is a famous quote attributed to Neil Armstrong as he stepped out of the lunar module Eagle and onto the lunar surface. This historic event represents a monumental achievement in the history of mankind and is the result of years of endeavour, innovation and study. To date, only three countries have successfully landed on the moon: the United States, Russia (1966) and China (2013). In 2019, China followed with the Chang’e 4 mission, which enabled the first landing on the far side of the moon.

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Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the Moon, next to the Lunar Module Eagle, launched with the Apollo 11 spaceflight © Nasa

In addition to Earth, there are two other planets that have been touched by human spacecraft or on which they have landed: Venus (the Soviet Union’s Venera programme carried out the first successful landings on Venus in the 1970s and 1980s) and Mars. Several missions from different space agencies have successfully landed on “the red planet”. NASA of the United States has carried out the most successful landings. The Mars rover missions Sojourner (1997), Spirit and Opportunity (2004), Curiosity (2012) and Perseverance (2021) have provided extensive data on the geology, climate and potential habitability of Mars. In addition, NASA’s InSight lander (2018) is investigating the interior of Mars and seismic activity.

Today, there are several major players in the field of space exploration and activities. Among them, NASA is probably the best known. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration is one of the world’s leading space agencies, responsible for numerous ground-breaking missions that often make headlines and excite science fans. It invests huge sums in research and is a pioneer in many space-related fields. Roscosmos is Russia’s federal space agency, the successor to the Soviet space programme. It plays an important role in manned spaceflight, satellite launches and international cooperation, including participation in the ISS programme. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has quickly become a major player in space exploration, with missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

China has its own space station, Tiangong, and is planning further missions to the moon and Mars. India’s ISRO has achieved milestones in space exploration, including the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) and the Chandrayaan Mission to the Moon. ISRO also operates a constellation of Earth observation satellites. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) conducts a wide range of space activities, including satellite launches, robotic exploration missions and participation in the ISS programme. It has also contributed to the Hayabusa asteroid missions and the Akatsuki Venus orbiter mission.

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Chinese Tiangong Space Station © Wikicommons

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is active in satellite communications, Earth observation, robotics and space exploration. Canada has contributed robotic arms to the ISS and participated in missions such as the Mars rovers. While SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is not a traditional space agency, it has become a major player in space exploration and commercial spaceflight. The company has carried out numerous satellite launches and ISS resupply missions and has bold plans for manned missions to the moon and Mars.

While the American NASA has achieved international renown and recognition, the European Space Agency (ESA) is at the forefront of space exploration and discovery on the European continent. Since its creation on 30 May 1975, its mission as an intergovernmental organisation has been to promote the development of European space capabilities and to ensure that investment in space benefits the citizens of Europe. ESA was founded by a group of European countries that joined forces to create a single space agency. The founding members of ESA were Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany (then West Germany), Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The UK’s membership was not affected by its withdrawal from the EU, as ESA is not an EU organisation.

The European Space Agency currently has 22 members, is headquartered in Paris and employs around 2,200 people worldwide (as of 2022). Its annual budget for 2024 is set at 7.8 billion euros. Slovenia is an associate member, while ESA has also entered into formal cooperation with six other EU member states. Canada participates in some ESA programmes under a cooperation agreement. As already mentioned, ESA’s headquarters are located in Paris. In addition, ESA offers services for start-ups at its sites ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre) in Noordwijk (Netherlands) and ESOC (European Space Operations Centre) in Darmstadt (Germany) in cooperation with CESAH (Centre for Satellite Navigation Hesse) in Germany.

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The European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, The Netherlands © ESTEC

From the depths of our planet to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, ESA’s diverse portfolio spans a wide range of scientific disciplines, explorations and research endeavours. Whether it is analysing the planets of our solar system or distant galaxies, or simply monitoring the pulse of our own planet, ESA’s activities offer a unique insight into the cosmos and our place within it.

With such a wealth of missions, collaborations and scientific endeavours, ESA will continue to inspire people and push the boundaries of human knowledge and technological innovation to new levels.

The idea of international cooperation is at the centre of the ESA mission. ESA has entered into partnerships with other national space agencies in an attempt to find common solutions to global problems facing humanity, from climate change and environmental degradation to the search for alternative renewable energy sources.

ESA was founded in response to the desire of European nations to pool their resources, expertise and infrastructure for space exploration. By working together on space projects, the member states wanted to achieve scientific and technological advances beyond what they could achieve alone. The creation of ESA was a significant milestone in European space exploration and laid the foundations for decades of successful co-operation and achievements in space.

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Artist’s Concept of InSight Lander on Mars. InSight was the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved © Nasa

By carefully coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, ESA is able to launch and fund programmes and activities that go far beyond the scope and capabilities of any single European country. While many Western European countries also have their own space agencies, ESA is a combination of them all and often provides various instruments for NASA missions (both in Earth orbit and in space). Comparing the two agencies, the difference in philosophy is clear: ESA focuses more on near-future robotic exploration and looks for ways to improve space transportation systems, while NASA focuses on human exploration, with Mars being a major goal. ESA’s total budget is three times smaller than NASA’s, and almost half of it is dedicated to Earth-related activities. Almost half of NASA’s budget is earmarked for human exploration. However, ESA spends more on space transport than NASA.

Twelve orbits a day provide NASA Mars Global Surveyor MOC wide angle cameras a global napshot of weather patterns across the planet. Here, bluish-white water ice clouds hang above the Tharsis volcanoes © NASA/JPL/MSSSMars Global Surveyor © Nasa

ESA has been involved in numerous missions to explore our solar system and beyond, including missions to explore Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury, comets, asteroids and the outer planets. ESA has collaborated with other space agencies on missions such as Mars Express, Rosetta and BepiColombo.

ESA is now an important partner in the International Space Station (ISS) programme, providing both a financial contribution and astronauts. ESA astronauts have participated in several missions to the ISS, conducting scientific research and technological demonstrations in a microgravity environment. Founded in 1990, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany, is the European centre of excellence for the selection, training and support of astronauts. It is also home to the ESA Astronaut Operations Team, where specialised EUROCOM ( European Communicator and Medical Operations) experts are responsible for all European voice communications with astronauts on the International Space Station.

ESA operates a fleet of Earth observation satellites that collect data on various aspects of the Earth’s environment, including climate change, natural disasters and environmental monitoring. These satellites provide valuable data for scientific research, climate modelling and applications such as agriculture, forestry and urban planning.

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ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet reading a book at the Cupola of the International Space Station © ESA

The European Space Agency develops and operates telecommunications satellites that provide services such as broadcasting, broadband internet access and mobile communications. These satellites play a crucial role in the development of global communication networks. EDRS is a public-private partnership between ESA and Airbus. Airbus is responsible for building and operating the infrastructure of the system. Airbus also implements the data transmission services and makes them available to ESA, while ESA finances the development of the infrastructure. In 2022, France paid more than 1.1 billion euros to the European Space Agency (ESA) to support ESA’s space exploration mission.

ESA is developing the launchers, spacecraft and ground facilities needed to keep Europe at the forefront of global space activities. Today, it launches satellites for Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications and astronomy, sends probes to the furthest corners of the solar system and participates in human space exploration. (Source: www.esa.int/Science_Exploration)

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© ESA

ESA does not operate its own launchers, but works with commercial launch service providers and other space agencies to put satellites into orbit. ESA’s main launcher is the Ariane family, which is operated by Arianespace, a European-based commercial launch services provider. The Ariane rockets, including Ariane 5 and Ariane 6, are used to launch satellites for ESA as well as for commercial customers, international space agencies and the member states of the European Space Agency. In addition to Ariane, ESA also works with other launchers such as SpaceX, Roscosmos and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to put satellites into orbit. ESA satellites support a wide range of applications, including Earth observation, environmental monitoring, climate research, telecommunications, navigation, scientific research and technology demonstration.

ESA also supports scientific research in many areas by funding projects and providing access to space-based data and facilities, and has several ambitious plans and projects on its agenda covering a wide range of scientific disciplines and exploration objectives.

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Image of the full Earth disc captured at 11 50 UTC on 18 March 2023 by the Flexible Combined Imager on MTG-I1 © EUMETSAT/ESA

ESA has expressed its interest in participating in lunar exploration and also contributing to NASA’s Artemis programme, which aims to return humans to the moon by the mid-2020s. ESA could provide key technologies, scientific instruments or even European astronauts for lunar missions. ESA is also continuing its interest in Mars exploration, building on previous successes such as the Mars Express mission and the ExoMars programme. Future plans could include further robotic missions to Mars to further investigate its surface, atmosphere and potential for past or present life. ESA is planning future missions to study exoplanets, unravel the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, explore the outer planets and their moons, and improve our understanding of fundamental physics.

Much of ESA’s funding goes towards Earth observation programmes to monitor and research the environment, climate change, biodiversity and natural disaster management. ESA invests heavily in satellite-based telecommunications and navigation systems, supporting applications such as global internet connectivity, satellite navigation (Galileo) and secure communications networks for government and commercial users. It also finances the research and development of propulsion systems or autonomous robotics for the further exploration of space.

To keep pace with other space agencies and build a strong image as a major player in the field, ESA is present online and communicates its latest achievements and plans in an organised and rigorous way on social media. Its account on X (formerly Twitter) is very active.

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Situated in Cologne, Germany, The European Astronaut Centre is responsible for the preparation, planning and scheduling of the European astronauts’ tasks and flight assignments as well as coordinating astronaut activities with other countries © ESA

Space exploration sparks curiosity and imagination and motivates people of all ages to pursue careers in science and technology. Educational programmes linked to space missions promote scientific literacy and encourage innovation and critical thinking. ESA employs a variety of recruitment strategies to attract talented people who contribute with their skills, expertise and passion to fulfil its mission of advancing space exploration, research and technological development. The agency offers students and graduates the opportunity to complete internships and traineeships to gain practical experience in space-related fields. These programmes provide valuable training, mentoring and networking opportunities for young professionals pursuing a career in space science and technology. In addition, ESA sponsors scholarship programmes that allow scientists, engineers and researchers to contribute to ESA’s projects and initiatives. These scholarships provide financial support, access to ESA facilities and resources, and opportunities for professional development and collaboration with leading experts in the field.

Over the years, space exploration has also been associated with military purposes and interests. The relationship between space exploration and military activities continues to influence space policy and strategies. Satellites are essential for both civilian and military applications. While many satellites are used for peaceful purposes, military organisations also rely heavily on satellite technology for reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence gathering and communication. Military satellites provide critical capabilities for monitoring global security threats, conducting military operations and maintaining situational awareness. Many technologies developed for space exploration are dual-use, meaning they can be used for both civilian and military purposes. For example, advances in propulsion systems, materials science, remote sensing and robotics developed for space missions can also be used for military purposes, such as missile defence, surveillance and space-based weapon systems.

The strategic importance of space has grown significantly as nations increasingly rely on satellite-based services for their national security, economic prosperity and geopolitical influence. Space assets play a critical role in modern warfare, providing communication, navigation, early warning and precision targeting capabilities. As a result, military organisations are investing heavily in space capabilities to protect their interests, deter potential adversaries and maintain a competitive advantage in the space domain.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson met with representatives from the UK and Soviet Union to sign the Outer Space Treaty on Jan. 17, 1967. Johnson pushed for and helped author the pact © National Archives

The potential for the weaponisation of space, including the deployment of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), directed energy weapons and space-based missile defence systems, has been the subject of recent concern and debate. While international treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty prohibit the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space, there is an ongoing debate about the deployment of conventional weapons and defence systems in space and their impact on international security and stability.

Today, national space policies and strategies often reflect a combination of civil and military objectives, with governments balancing priorities related to space exploration, national security, economic development and international co-operation. While space exploration has many peaceful and beneficial applications, its intersection with military interests emphasises the complex and multi-faceted nature of space activities.

However, ESA’s space programmes aim to expand our understanding of the universe, improve life on Earth and inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and explorers. ESA’s collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to space exploration, its commitment to the peaceful exploration of space and its independent launch capabilities make it a unique and influential player in the global space community.

alexandra.paucescu@europe-diplomatic.eu

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