TCD students visit European Space Research and Technology Centre

11 March 2014

35 members of Trinity College Dublin's physics society recently landed in the Netherlands to visit the European Space Agency’s (ESA) largest branch - the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC).

Photo ESA/Anneke Le Floc’h
Photo ESA/Anneke Le Floc’h


We arrived early in the afternoon and were immediately greeted by our main tour guide Robert Williamson. After going through the necessary security checks, we were presented with our visitors passes and went on our way.

Firstly, we headed over to the main buildings where we got a spot of lunch before beginning our main tour. The long corridors of ESTEC were bustling and it was fantastic just to be able to absorb the atmosphere! We reached a ‘rainbow corridor’ which is the corridor that all of the main laboratory entrances lead off.

Rainbow corridor - David Zhao TCD
Rainbow corridor - David Zhao TCD


Any material which is sent into space by ESA is stress tested in these labs. At the end of this corridor there was what looked like a large rock, but was, in fact, a 3-D printed prototype for a lunar colony. This was made from powdered rock, similar to moon dust, to show that it would be possible to build such an object on the moon in the future. It was a fantastic opportunity to be exposed to such interesting technologies which, as students, we could only merely imagine before this trip.

Rebecca Prouse TCD
Credit: Rebecca Prouse TCD


Following this we were brought to another building passing the centrifuge building on the way. The centrifuge is used to understand and describe the influence of gravity in systems. It is capable of putting experiments under the influence of a force 20 times the normal gravitational force on earth. We were then shown a series of presentations. Our first was from Margherita Buoso who is Head of the ECSAT Communication Office. She introduced ESA and explained its missions and goals and what happens on a day to day basis at ESTEC.

ESA is comprised of over 20 member states of which Ireland is one. It has five establishments in Europe and employs over 2200 staff. They have developed six types of launcher, and  have designed and tested over 70 satellites to date. With a budget of 4 billion euro for 2014, their main area of focus will centre around Earth Observation, Navigation, and Launchers. We were also told about some of ESTEC's key achievements, including Rosetta (Europe’s comet chaser)  and GAIA  (surveying over a billion local stars). We also learned of some of ESTEC's up and coming projects, such as Bepicolombo which is a mission to Mercury. In particular, we learned that ESTEC is the centre for everything which is sent into space. From the development of blue prints for new ideas, to the testing of entire spacecrafts, ESTEC is at the heart of it all.

To gain a more detailed understanding of what is available for students when they have completed their Masters programme, we had a presentation from Andrew Wolahan, originally from Ireland. Andrew studied Aircraft Systems in Carlow IT and went on to do a Masters in Cranfield University. He currently works as a systems engineer in ESTEC, having entered in 2013 as part of the Young Graduate Trainee Programme. Andrew also explained to us, in depth, the current jobs he is part of including Clean Space- the removal of satellites in space which are no longer functioning. We gained a lot of insight into what possibilities which ESA, and in particular ESTEC, can offer and the kind of jobs someone who is coming straight from university could be working on.

We then had a 3-D presentation which was incredible! It was a 3-D presentation of the International Space Station (ISS). It gave us a complete tour of the station and showed us the type of environment that astronauts live in when they are in space. From the European pod, which ESA built, to the Russian pod, it was evident to all of us how much of a technological accomplishment this was. From the view of the earth, to the way in which the astronauts manoeuvre themselves around the station, it was a magical experience even just to see. Most of us came away with the wish that we could too, someday, see the magnificent view available to the astronauts who work there.

Credit: David Zhao TCD


To end our tour, the group was then brought into the space gallery where we were then split up into two smaller groups. We got to explore this gallery and see various interesting objects, some of which have previously been sent to space. These included, a 1:1 scale of the Columbus module from the ISS, a 1:10 scale model of the ISS, a soyuz spacecraft which was similar to the one Gagarin to go into space in, and three different launchers used by ESA. We also went to the Congruent Design Facility which is where groups come together to discuss new projects which will hopefully go ahead in the future. The room is set up so that customers can meet with all of the different teams which will be involved in the designing of their project including engineers, risk analysts, scientists, etc. This allows for changes to be made with everyone's knowledge so that any potential risks may be addressed as quickly as possible.

Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip to ESTEC. It was very informative and motivating to see what we could potentially do in our future. It provided a great insight into all the technologies involved in space flight, as well as the in depth planning involved for future missions. We would like to thank ESTEC for giving us the opportunity for this experience, and we would especially like to thank Anja Appelt for all of her help with coordinating and organising this trip for us. We would also like to thank Margherita Buoso and our guide Robert Williamson.

Written by Rebecca Prouse and Clara Owens.

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