Sen— Next week, Ministers representing the 20 Member States that comprise the European Space Agency (ESA) will meet in Naples for The Ministerial Council 2012, to determine the future course of Europe’s space programmes. They will consider all areas that ESA is active in, from space exploration to safeguarding Earth's environment while at the same time boosting Europe's technical expertise and economic competitiveness.
After the second World War individual European nations, left unable to compete in the race for space between Russia and America, realised that cooperation rather than competition was the way forward, and that more could be done in space by working together than any one nation could achieve.
In the early 1960s six European countries formed ELDO, the European Launcher Development Organisation, and in 1962 ESRO, the European Space Research Organisation, was also created with four other countries. As the economic potential of space became clear a broader organisation was called for and the European Space Agency was formed in 1975.
In the almost 40 years since its formation, ESA has become one of the world's major space agencies –with a €6 billion annual turnover, employing directly 35,000 skilled professionals while the number of space-related jobs in Europe, when including employment in downstream sectors, is ten times that figure.
Europe is a world leader in the telecommunications and launcher markets, while its astronomical, planetary science and Earth science missions are respected worldwide, leading to cooperative missions with other international agencies including NASA and the Japanese and Russian space agencies.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA, said "Space has become a crucial tool in addressing the global challenges the world is facing and will continue to face in the decades ahead. Through ESA, we can help make 'our spaceship', the Earth, a better place to live in".
All this is achieved on a budget several times lower than that of Europe's international counterparts. When divided between the 500 million European citizens represented by the 20 Member States, this year's budget of just over €4,000 million, amounts to about €8 per person, the cost of a ticket to the cinema. Investment in space is an investment in knowledge, innovation and inspiration, while every €1 invested returns several times its value to the wider economy, helping to strengthen Europe’s strategic independence and our common prosperity.
The Ministerial Council will be looking at each area of ESA's activities: navigation, Earth observation, telecommunications and integrated applications, technology, launchers, human spaceflight and space science.
Going forward, ESA is keen to lessen the environmental impact of missions and to develop more sustainable methods. The agency is looking at ways to consume less energy with greener methods of propulsion, using more ecofriendly and sustainable materials, producing less waste by cutting levels of space debris and bringing down costs. Cubesats offer one solution: low cost, modular nanosatellites for specialised missions that can be developed cheaply and quickly to respond to rapid advances in scientific research.
With the launch next year of the Gaia mission to survey a billion stars and create a 3D map of our Galaxy, and the BepiColombo mission to Mercury due to launch in 2015, Europe has an important future in space. As for the exact shape of its space program in the years to come, that is something that will soon be determined by the agency's member states sitting in the Ministerial Council.