Space technology, data and services have become indispensable to the lives of Europe’s citizens, but the EU’s space programme faces competition from big-spending states and private actors. There is also an urgent need to address safety and sustainability issues and complicated governance structures.
EU policymakers will need to get a grip of these challenges at a summit in February if they want to prevent the bloc from falling behind in the space race and losing out on a wave of innovation.
“The European space industry has grown in economic importance and now employs more than 230,000 people and is estimated to be worth up to €62bn”
Whether it is enabling communications to improve response times in an emergency, monitoring the environment to support net zero ambitions, or providing positioning and timing information to the transport sector through Europe’s Galileo global navigation satellite system, the space industry is playing an increasingly important role in everyday life in Europe.
However, the European Space Agency (ESA), the intergovernmental organisation with 22 Member States created in 1975 to shape Europe’s space capability, has warned that although the bloc has a strong edge in developing certain technologies such as launchers and commercial satellites, it risks being overtaken in other key areas, such as manned space exploration.
The agency’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher, recently noted that India was following in the footsteps of the US, China and Russia in developing a manned spaceflight programme that could start putting astronauts into orbit as early as next year. “They all have their own ship to discover the next frontier, and that means the next economic zone, which is the moon and beyond. Europe doesn’t have such a ship”, he said.
To work out how Europe can keep pace with those countries trailblazing in space, the ESA and the EU are holding a special summit in Toulouse on 16 February. This two-part event will consist of an informal EU Competitive Council Meeting on Space, attended by Member State ministers, with an address by Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market in charge of space by and Aschbacher, as well as an ESA Council Meeting.
Europe’s budget for space is likely to be a key talking point. Despite the headline-grabbing exploits of billionaires like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, space exploration is dominated by big-spending national programmes.
The US, through NASA, leads the pack which includes the Russian Federation Space Agency (RFSA), the ESA supported by national programmes in the UK, France, and Germany, the China National Space Administration as well as Indian and Japanese agencies.
While the EU Space Programme’s budget is the largest it has ever been, with €14.8bn allocated for the 2021-2027 period, it lags far behind the US, which earmarked $22.6bn to NASA in 2020 alone. Aschbacher told the European Parliament in November that the combined space budget of ESA and the EU was only 0.06 percent of its collective GDP, compared with 0.24 percent in the US.
“European space sector competitiveness is complicated by the involvement of numerous actors including the European Commission, the ESA, and the EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), meaning the EU often struggles to speak with a single voice”
But the European space industry has grown in economic importance and now employs more than 230,000 people and is estimated to be worth up to €62bn. EU flagship programmes, such as Galileo and Copernicus, the EU’s earth observation programme, are examples of European success stories. Aschbacher has said he hopes to convince European leaders to invest in developing Europe’s capability to launch its own astronauts on its own rockets with its own capsules.
The space summit will also need to consider the issue of governance. Once an exclusively national activity, space has evolved into a fully-fledged European policy area led by the European Commission’s department for Defence, Industry and Space (DEFIS). However, European space sector competitiveness is complicated by the involvement of numerous actors including the European Commission, the ESA, and the EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), meaning the EU often struggles to speak with a single voice.
Furthermore, some ESA member states are continuing to invest in their own space capabilities according to their national priorities. France, for example, has committed to spending €1.5bn on space initiatives as part of its wider “France 2030” investment plan, but its focus on defence contrasts with Germany’s priorities on civilian activities.
Leaders attending the space summit are scheduled to discuss EU strategies for secure connectivity, space traffic management, and the ESA’s three so-called ‘accelerators’, which aim to raise the EU’s game in the sector: space for a green future, rapid and resilient crisis response and protection of space assets.
Ensuring safety in space is also likely to feature in the discussions after Russia carried out a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile test to destroy one of its own satellites in mid-November. This produced a large amount of dangerous space debris, threatening the International Space Station and other satellites in orbit. The move, which triggered concerns over a space arms race, drew condemnation from Europe.
Commenting, EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned, “This threatening behaviour entails a high risk of miscalculation and escalation and undermines stability in outer space. It is a reminder of the urgent need to take forward international discussions in order to agree on and implement norms of responsible behaviour in outer space”.
Artiom Ialama is a consultant at Dods EU Political Intelligence.
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