What is the European Space Agency? The ESA explained

The multi-billion-euro agency brings 22 nations together to take charge of European exploration into space and turn astronauts into household names.

The European Space Agency (ESA) describes itself as 'Europe’s gateway to space' and its profile has increased in the UK with the recruitment and spaceflight of of British astronaut Tim Peake.

The agency, which is headquartered in Paris, is responsible for the continent’s activities in space, so we found out a bit more about what it does.

[Read more: ESA wants to use lasers to explore Mars]

What is the European Space Agency?

The ESA is made up of 22 states - Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The international consortium decides what Europe is going to do in space, provides funding, promotes further understanding of space science and technology and looks to develop satellite-based technologies and services.

How big is the European Space Agency's budget?

In 2018, ESA’s budget is €5.6 billion, a decrease from 2017’s budget of €5.75 billion. This money is spent on things such as space transportation, human space flight and earth observation.

It's estimated that 20% of ESA’s funds come from the EU budget, with the remainder contributed by member states.

Who is Tim Peake?

In the UK, the ESA’s most famous employee is Tim Peake. Peake, a former soldier and test pilot, went into Space and lived on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016 and captured the public’s imagination with his video updates and live blogs.

Peake spent 186 days in space and became the first British astronaut to be sent on a mission to the ISS.

Key missions of the European Space Agency

The International Rosetta Mission is Europe’s comet-chaser. Launched in 2004 and lasting until September 2016, the aim was to chase, orbit and land on comet Jupiter-family comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

It was the first mission to deploy a lander to the comet’s surface and you can follow its journey by playing the visualisation in this link -  http://sci.esa.int/where_is_rosetta/.

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Mars Express is another key ESA mission, and Europe’s first planetary mission. The aim was to study the surface, subsurface and atmosphere of Mars, and to search for water.

The ExoMars mission

An upcoming ESA exploration into space is the much-anticipated ExoMars mission in 2020. The plan is to deploy a rover into space to help search for potential biomarkers of past or present life on the Red Planet.

What's coming up in 2018?

2018 is the 10th anniversary of the launch of Columbus, the first permanent European research facility in space and ESA’s largest single contribution to the ISS. The ESA will be celebrating the anniversary of its lift off in February.

This year, ESA's other plans include exploring Mercury further and completing its navigational satellite programme.

[Read more: ESA will launch telescope able to discover twin Earths]

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