EU space policy needs innovation to stay in 'race' against US

The European space industry has huge potential but requires more investment if it is to compete with its US counterpart, says Angelika Niebler.

By Angelika Niebler

26 Jan 2015

There is so much more to a well-developed space policy than just landing on the moon or a desire to one day land on Mars. Telecommunications, traffic surveillance, navigation, earth observation, danger prevention and even weather forecasts - the space industry is one of the main driving forces of innovation, the benefits of which can be felt by all. However, there is very little room at the top and the competition never sleeps. Last year, the organisation for economic cooperation and development (OECD) examined data from over 40 countries with space programmes. The US remains the leader and is able to afford the largest space programme. Worldwide in 2013, there were at least 900,000 people employed in the space industry - not including universities and research facilities.

It goes without saying that the EU needs to collaborate with the European space agency (ESA) and find new ways of holding its ground against the growing competition. Europe can look back on 50 successful years in European space travel - and we need to build on this. We need to make Europe more competitive. Politicians can establish the right framework conditions, but the impulse needs to come from the economy itself. In terms of research and development, the EU has allocated a total of €1.7bn for space research over the next seven years under its new 'Horizon 2020' research framework programme. This money must now be put to good use, especially in relation to ‘global monitoring for environment and security’ (GMES), for security aspects and satellite communication applications.

"Europe can look back on 50 successful years in European space travel - and we need to build on this"

In a community of 28 countries with over 500 million inhabitants, there is certainly creativity and a striving for new innovation. The difficulty lies in pooling and coordinating skills and experience. Approval procedures are complicated and national sensitivities should not be underestimated. Therefore, the ESA ministers sent out the right signal at their meeting at the beginning of December last year. With work on the Ariane 6 space shuttle going ahead, the continued success of Europe's launch vehicle is guaranteed. In the future, Ariane 6 will also ensure independent access to outer space. Precisely the right signals are being sent out for maintaining Europe's competitiveness in the space industry. The German and French joint venture, 'Airbus Safran launchers', will be responsible for developing, building and marketing new rockets. This also sends a clear message to US competitor Space X.

The race between Europe and the US has once again picked up speed. Last year, following a 10-year journey, the ESA successfully landed the 'Rosetta' probe on a comet 800 million kilometres from the sun to research the history of how our solar system was formed. It is now Space X's turn - the USA company has developed a 'reusable' rocket, which will be deployed to deliver food and other supplies to the international space station (ISS). Once this has been done, the rocket will not fall into the sea as is customary. Instead, it will land on a floating platform in the sea, ready to be reused. This would be a revolution in the history of space travel and could significantly reduce the cost of such projects. Space X already benefits from lower costs thanks to its lean structure. However, other small and extremely flexible US companies are entering the market and benefitting from government support. Europe's space industry therefore needs to be more cost-efficient. The small scale, very complex structures in Europe consisting of various players in industry, politics and science are large cost drivers.

"Worldwide in 2013, there were at least 900,000 people employed in the space industry - not including universities and research facilities"

Other extremely ambitious European projects are also slowly starting to take shape at the same time. Last summer, Angelika Niebler (EPP, DE) was parliament's rapporteur on EU space industrial policy, releasing the potential for growth in the space sector "Worldwide in 2013, there were at least 900,000 people employed in the space industry - not including universities and research facilities" a mountaintop was destroyed in Chile, laying the foundations for a project of unimaginable size - the European extremely large telescope (E-ELT). It is a single telescope with a main mirror measuring 39 metres in diameter, set to open doors to new worlds as of 2024. The images the telescope will transmit are said to be 16 times sharper than those of the Hubble telescope, developed by the national aeronautics and space administration (Nasa) and the ESA. The aim of this ambitious project is to find evidence of an earth-like planet on which life could form in the habitable zone of a star. However, this is likely to take a few years or even decades.

In our everyday lives, we all benefit from countless innovations originating from space travel - without even noticing. Satellite communication in particular still attracts too little attention. Rapid internet access in Europe's most remote areas, navigation systems which are not just for cars but also for air and sea transport, climate protection initiatives and even the efficient management of Europe’s energy networks - these would all be unthinkable nowadays without satellites. Research activities therefore need to be pursued in this area too.


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