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The Future Missions Office

The Future Missions Office (SCI-F) in the Directorate of Science (D/SCI) is responsible for the mission studies (Phases 0, A and B1) and their technology preparation (Core Technology Programme), with a view to enabling their implementation. The Office is also in charge of Small (S-class) Missions, and provides general support to the Directorate for payload validation activities.


The core objective of the Cosmic Vision Plan is to ensure a quasi-regular sequence of missions that address the Cosmic Vision objectives and reflect the Science Programme needs. New missions are proposed by the science community and follow a thorough competitive process before being proposed for selection by the Science Programme Committee (SPC). The current approach to mission selection and implementation can be summarised as follows, with a timeline that depends on the size of the mission in question:

  1. A Call for Mission Proposals is issued by ESA with specific boundaries in place, including budget and launch date.
  2. Mission proposals are submitted by the scientific community.
  3. Proposals are screened for feasibility.
  4. Feasible proposals are scientifically assessed through a peer review process involving ESA Science Advisory Structure, including the Space Science Advisory Committee (SSAC). One or more candidate missions are identified and initial feasibility studies take place.
  5. A final down-selection to one mission for implementation is performed through a peer review process and SSAC scientific review, followed by a decision by the SPC.
  6. The mission is subject to a detailed study phase to demonstrate its technical and programmatic feasibility, including technology readiness.
  7. The mission is adopted by the SPC for implementation.
  8. The space and ground segments are developed.
  9. The spacecraft is launched.
  10. The spacecraft is operated in orbit and science data are delivered.

This bottom-up selection process aims at reaching both scientific and technical excellence, by identifying the best mission to implement at a given time and for specified budget and schedule boundaries.

The contribution of SCI-F to each new mission covers steps 1 to 7. Following the mission adoption by the SPC, the mission implementation responsibility is transferred to the Project Department (SCI-P), in charge of developing the space segment up to the commissioning phase in orbit. Following in-orbit commissioning, the mission implementation responsibility is transferred from SCI-P to the Science Operations Department (SCI-O), in charge of the mission operations.


The overall period from the Call outcome (step 4) to the mission adoption (step 7) is called the Mission Preparation Phase. Its duration depends on the nature of the mission: for flagship L-Class missions (the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission; the Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (ATHENA) - an X-ray observatory; a Gravitational Wave Observatory), it can be as long as seven to eight years, because these missions generally require cutting-edge technologies and demanding pre-developments to enable the mission adoption. For M-Class missions, the preparation phase is about four to five years with (limited) technology developments. For fast-track S-Class missions, it is less than two years with no technology developments.  

While the end objective of the Mission Preparation Phase is to enable the mission adoption by the SPC, it is in practice subdivided in two sub-phases as following:

i) The Assessment Phase, corresponding to Phases 0 and A

ii) The Definition Phase, corresponding to the Phase B1

Once a candidate mission is selected for assessment (step 4), it is first subject to a Phase 0 system study that is carried out by the Agency with the participation of the mission proposers from the scientific community. The Phase 0 study results are used to initiate (possibly parallel) Phase A industrial studies, and the mission selection by the SPC (step 5) generally occurs at the end of Phase A. The mission is then subject to a detailed industrial study (Phase B1, step 6), with a view to enabling its final adoption by the SPC (step 7).

Prior to adoption, the mission status is subject to a thorough independent ESA review, called the Mission Adoption Review, organised under the authority of ESA's Inspector General Office.  The review evaluates the mission definition maturity, technology readiness and implementation risks. A dedicated review panel is devoted to the mission programmatic elements including cost, schedule and interfaces with partners. The review results are made available to the SPC and constitute, together with the SSAC scientific assessment, the basis of ESA's recommendation to the SPC to implement the mission. The mission adoption by the SPC is a major decision authorizing the Agency to proceed to the implementation phase (step 8).


The Future Missions Office is in charge of the Core Technology Programme (CTP), which is a budget in the science programme devoted to the technology preparation of future science missions.  For each new L-Class or M-Class mission, all technology development and pre-development activities are implemented during the Mission Preparation Phase. Following the mission adoption, activities that are not completed at that time (while not jeopardizing the mission adoption) are generally transferred to the ESA Project Team in charge of the mission implementation.

A guiding principle is that a mission must have reached a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 5-6 to be adopted, which means that the critical base technology developments of the spacecraft and science instruments must be completed by this time. The effective time available for these technology developments to take place varies with the mission’s type. For L-Class missions dozens of critical technology activities might be needed and these activities may take place over a period of seven or eight years. For M-Class missions this is closer to two or three years.

The Core Technology Programme is key to allowing for timely mission implementation. In addition, for L-Class missions, intermediate results obtained through technology developments may also feed into the mission definition studies and support major design trade-offs.

The Core Technology Programme focuses on both platform and payload technologies, and addresses all elements that are to be developed by ESA. For the science instrumentation elements that are provided by ESA Member States, critical technologies are generally developed by the respective lead funding agencies, in close coordination with ESA. The Core Technology Programme also works in close conjunction with ESA's Technology Research Programme, which focusses on the initial stages of new technology development, bringing them to proof-of-concept stage (TRL 3-4) before transferring them to the Core Technology Programme to increase the TRL level (TRL 5-6), by taking into account mission specific requirements.

Further details about the activities in the Technology Research Programme and the Core Technology Programme that support the implementation of the Cosmic Vision Plan can be found in the Technology Development Plan: Programme of Work and Related Procurement Plan.

Payload Technology Validation Activities

The Future Missions Office includes a dedicated section devoted to the validation of critical instrument related performance. The payload validation activities consist of mission specific instrument hardware characterisation made in the Office laboratory facilities, such as specific detector performance verifications in thermal vacuum and cryogenic environment. The payload validation activities support the Science Directorate activities in all mission phases: future missions under definition, projects under development (e.g. Euclid) and missions in operation (e.g. Gaia).  In addition to these mission related activities, the section provides specific support to research activities that are conducted in the Science Support Office (SCI-S).


The Future Missions Office is also in charge of the definition and implementation of small (S-Class) science missions. Over ninety percent of the Science Programme budget is assigned to the L- and M-Class missions. The Small  (S-Class) missions are, as their name suggests, much smaller in scale and rely on existing technology. They are designed with rapid implementation in mind, typically going from mission adoption to launch in less than four years.

S-Class missions are not yet a confirmed Programme element. The first S-Class mission, the CHaracterizing ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS), was adopted in 2014 and is targeted for launch in 2018.


The Future Missions Office is currently composed of:

  • Advanced Payload and Mission Concepts Office (SCI-FM), in charge of Phases 0/A, with three sections:
    • SCI-FMP: in charge of Solar System and Robotic Exploration Missions studies,
    • SCI-FMA: in charge of Astrophysics and Fundamental Physics Missions studies,
    • SCI-FMI: in charge of payload instrumentation study activities
  • SCI-FT: in charge of preparing and implementing the technology development plans to enable the missions
  • SCI-FV: in charge of payload technology validation activities
  • SCI-FP: in charge of PLATO phase-B1 study activities
  • SCI-FC: in charge of CHEOPS implementation


Last Update: 09 June 2016

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