European Space Agency (ESA), multinational agency dedicated to the promotion, for exclusively peaceful purposes, of cooperation among European states in space research and technology. Member states include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Great Britain; Canada, the Czech Republic, and Hungary participate in selected ESA programs. The financial contribution of each member is determined by the projects it wishes to support, and no member may undertake a project without inviting ESA's participation.
The headquarters of ESA are in Paris, with four major ESA facilities in other countries. The European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC), located at Noordwijk, the Netherlands, is the primary research center and manages the satellite projects. The European Space Operations Center (ESOC), located at Darmstadt, Germany, is responsible for satellite control, monitoring, and data retrieval. The European Space Research Institute (ESRIN), located at Frascati, Italy, supports the ESA documentation service and manages the data obtained from remote sensing satellites. The European Astronaut Center (EAC), located at Cologne, Germany, is responsible for the selection and training of astronauts for space station missions. In addition to the major centers, ESA operates sounding-rocket launch stations in Norway and Sweden, a meteorological program office at Toulon, France, and satellite tracking stations in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
Major ESA programs include the development of the Ariane and Vega rockets, used for launching most ESA satellites from the Guiana Space Center at Kourou and Sinnamary, French Guiana. There also is a joint Russian-European launch program there that uses Soyuz ST rockets, a version of the Soyuz 2. ESA developed the Spacelab scientific workshop, which was transported into space more than 20 times by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) space shuttle; the Giotto space probe, which in a 1986 flyby examined the nucleus of Halley's comet; and the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) and ISO (Infrared Space Observatory) orbiting observatories, launched in 1995. A system of meteorological satellites, called Meteosat, has also been established, and a system of navigation satellites, known as Galileo, is under development. Among other ESA projects have been the Herschel Space Telescope, which observed (2009–13) infrared to submillimeter wavelengths with a 138-in. (3.5-m) mirror, the largest sent into space so far, and Planck, which observed (2009–13) the cosmic microwave background radiation. The member nations of ESA are also participating with Brazil, Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States in the International Space Station (ISS; see space station), and have development components for the ISS. In addition, ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle was developed to resupply the ISS. Arianespace, the first commercial space transportation company, was established in 1980 as a subsidiary of the French space agency, and now conducts more than half of all commercial satellite launches.
The foundation of ESA was laid with the formation of the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) in 1962 and of the European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO) in 1964. ESRO consisted of ten European countries and Australia, which placed its rocket-firing range at Woomera at the organization's disposal; between 1968 and 1972 seven ESRO satellites—Iris (ESRO-2B), Aurorae (ESRO-1A), HEOS-1, BOREAS, HEOS-2, TD-1A, and ESRO-4—were launched on NASA rockets. ELDO, which consisted of seven European countries, developed Kourou's launch site. Intending to build the Europa 1 multistage launch vehicle—combining a British first stage, a French second stage, and a German third stage—to orbit an Italian satellite, ELDO was unsuccessful primarily because of organizational problems. By 1975 it was obvious that a new approach was required, and ESRO and ELDO were merged to form ESA.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.