Technology can be defined in many different ways, but it comes down to the invention of tools: making new things to do new things. ESA spends around 8% of its budget on direct technology R&D; it is one of the core functions of the Agency mandated in the ESA Convention.
Technology development is the overarching responsibility of ESA’s Directorate of Technical and Quality Management. It runs the whole gamut from investigating promising new ideas to finalising hardware for actual spaceflight. Technology R&D is organised along the Technology Readiness Ladder (see diagram). Rising up the ladder involves different phases of development, from laboratory prototypes to field testing to actual operations in space.
ESA’s Technology programmes are run on a 5–10 year timespan. The Directorate of Technical and Quality Management has the responsibility of ensuring enabling technologies become available for forthcoming missions when required. Future missions are typically devised assuming advanced technologies that do not even exist – yet.
ESA’s specialised technical sections and laboratories work in concert with European industry to bring these technologies into the realm of the possible. Research funding goes to companies, universities and research centres of the ESA Member States backing the activities, following the Agency’s geo-return principle. In general, 90% of ESA’s budget is spent on contracts with industry. ESA also prepares R&D plans for key technologies, working with partners including national space agencies, research centres and the European Commission as well as business to coordinate research and fill strategic gaps.
Scaling the Technology Readiness Levels
In common with other aerospace organisations, ESA employs the NASA-originated Technology Readiness Ladder to quantify the readiness of all its new technologies for flight in space. It is made up of the nine Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) listed in the diagram above.
A given technology must undergo progressively harder testing and validation before its TRL can rise. ESA’s Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP), overseen by the Directorate of Technical and Quality Management, is where most new concepts originate. Other programmes take over technology development at higher TRLs. Different ESA Directorates have their own R&D programmes, with the Directorate of Technical and Quality Management running the General Support Technology Programme (GSTP).
Basic Technology Research Programme (TRLs 1–3) The Agency’s basic ‘ideas factory’ where new concepts are first investigated. The TRP comes down to researchers asking ‘what if…?’ and investigating the answers. Mandatory for all ESA Member States, TRP covers all application areas, such as Earth observation, space science and human spaceflight. About 40% of TRP is devoted to generic technologies of interest to all areas.
- General Support Technology Programme (TRLs 4–9) Serves to convert promising engineering concepts initially developed within TRP into a broad spectrum of mature products – everything from individual components to subsystems up to entire satellites – that are ready for the market as well as space. An optional ESA programme that Member States can choose to support, GSTP includes an In-Orbit Demonstration Programme for the early flight of promising new technologies.