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Space Exploration

European Space Agency

Mars Express orbiter, Ariane rocket, cosmic background radiation, Arianespace, Spacelab

European Space Agency (ESA), organization formed in 1975 from the merger of the European Space Research Organization and the European Launcher Development Organization. The purpose of ESA is to promote European cooperation in the development of space research and technology. Its members include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In addition to the official member states, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Poland participate in ESA’s Plan for European Cooperating States (PECS). Outside Europe, the ESA collaborates on research and on space missions with the United States, Canada, Japan, and Brazil.

ESA’s headquarters is in Paris, and major facilities exist in several nations. It owns a major share in Arianespace, the marketing company for the Ariane rocket designed by ESA and first successfully flown in 1983. The ESA founded the European Center for Space Law in 1989. The ESA participates in both manned and unmanned space missions.

The ESA has its own astronaut corps. Members have flown into space on the U.S. space shuttle and in Russian capsules. In addition to providing astronauts, the ESA has developed hardware and technology for manned space missions. It built Spacelab, which first flew in 1983 on the ninth mission of the space shuttle and had its last flight in 1998. ESA is one of the participants in the International Space Station (ISS), the first parts of which were sent into orbit in late 1998. Columbus, ESA’s main contribution, is a scientific laboratory that will be permanently attached to the ISS for carrying out experiments in weightlessness. In addition, starting in 2007, ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will ferry up supplies to the ISS at yearly intervals.

In 1985 ESA launched the Giotto space probe to Halley’s comet. The ESA was involved in the development of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990. Other major spacecraft include the solar probes Ulysses (launched in 1990) and SOHO (launched in 1995), and the lunar probe SMART 1 (launched in 2003), which orbited the Moon. Planetary probes include the Huygens (launched aboard NASA’s Cassini in 1997), which landed on Saturn’s largest satellite, Titan, in 2005, and Mars Express orbiter (launched in 2003), which early in 2004 confirmed the presence of water in some form on Mars. Ongoing missions include the Rosetta comet-rendezvous mission (launched in 2004), and the Venus Express orbiter (launched in 2005). Space telescopes include the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory (launched in 1999) and the INTEGRAL gamma-ray observatory (launched in 2002).

Other projects of the ESA include the Herschel far-infrared and submillimeter wavelength observatory, scheduled for launch in 2007. The same rocket also carries the Planck mission to study the cosmic background radiation. Further development is also planned for telecommunications satellites, weather forecasting using the widely accepted Meteosat system, and the provision of a satellite navigation system. A long-term plan for solar system exploration called Aurora has also been announced.

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