The European Space Agency, or ESA, was first proposed in the late 1950′s when the United States and Russia began their famous Space Race. Knowing that small individual governments would not be able to compete with the two superpowers, European leaders discussed forming an intergovernmental agency that would have support from multiple governments. The agency was formally formed in 1975 with a purpose to promote cooperation among European states in space research and technology with a focus on peaceful applications. It currently has twenty member states and is headquartered in Paris, although there are mission control centers across Europe.


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Unlike its American and Russian counterparts, ESA typically focuses more on unmanned missions and research than on manned spaceflight. Currently, its manned space program is confined to participation in the International Space Station. Its fleet has three models. The primary launcher is the Ariane 5, which has been in service since 1997 and can take a heavy payload of up to 21 tons to low earth orbit. Recently, ESA has developed a small payload launcher as well: Vega, which was first launched in 2012 and can carry a maximum of 1.5 tons. In addition to ESA’s in-house models, they also use Soyuz, a Russian medium-payload launcher. The €340 million contract with Russia for the joint use of Soyuz was formalized in 2011 and is generally considered to be mutually beneficial. ESA benefits by adding a medium-payload launcher to its fleet without having to put money into developing a new one, while Russia benefits by doubling the payload of Soyuz, since it now launches from Kourou, which is much closer to the equator than the former site of Baikonur.

While ESA is currently involved in a number of research projects, its most exciting venture lies in the future. They recently announced a planned joint mission with Russia to land an unmanned probe on Ganymede (picture). This is one of the most ambitious projects in decades and is very scientifically important, since nothing has ever landed there before. The launch is planned for 2022, with the probe arriving near Jupiter in 2030. It will spend two years doing fly-by research of Jupiter and its moons before finally landing on Ganymede in 2032.


Credit: ESA/Roscosmos


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