What's the EU's role in the space race?

"The EU still has the potential to catch up," says MEP Niklas Nienass
Photo: Alamy

By Niklas Nienass

Member of the European Parliament's Green/EFA Party, where he is responsible for space policy.

11 Oct 2023

In a world where technology touches every aspect of our lives, space has become more than just a distant frontier; it is an integral part of our everyday existence. Space applications form pillars of our societal infrastructure, quietly sustaining vital functions.  

Every call made, every financial transaction completed, every webpage loaded relies on satellites in the Earth’s orbit. Satellites serve as the backbone of global communication. As well as offering GPS guidance for transport and travel, they grant us unparalleled views of our planet, providing essential data for accurate weather forecasts, disaster management, and monitoring climate change. And they tell us not only about our own planet but others as well, expanding our understanding of the universe and fostering innovation back on Earth. 

Around 7,000 satellites circle around us, making all this possible. The European Union stands out with its big flagship constellations that are world-leading. However, there are many areas where Europe is lagging behind. The gap is widening and Europe risks losing further ground to former peers, who are accelerating the use of space in their countries. The current European launcher crisis is a case in point, and provides a poignant illustration of the inherent risk of losing hardcore capabilities. 

With the retirement of Ariane 5 and delays with Ariane 6, Europe is unable to independently launch heavy missions into space. The situation presents a concerning bottleneck. Limited competition and high costs hinder accessibility to space, stifling innovation and scientific progress.  

To improve this landscape, fostering a competitive market with incentives for private enterprises is crucial. There is a need to invest in reusable technologies and streamline launch processes to reduce costs. By cultivating a dynamic, innovative launcher ecosystem, the EU could democratise space access, and enable a broader range of scientific endeavours and commercial ventures to flourish. 

One decisive factor common to this and other concerns is public and private funding. In the United States, the government can highly subsidise elementary activities and help the industry to grow more independent over time.  

The EU shouldn’t ‘copy and paste’ ideas from the US, but could draw inspiration and use the momentum from new technologies and startups emerging across the sector. With proper investment opportunities and increased national and European funding, European citizens would be able to enjoy more benefits long term. While the EU has understood this, we still seem hesitant to act on our insights.  

The EU is at the forefront of creating regulatory frameworks that strike a balance between safety and innovation, and we should keep driving change here. The increasing number of satellites and debris in the Earth’s orbit necessitates a co-ordinated approach to safeguarding the security of EU and Member States’ space assets.  

The current efforts to endorse a comprehensive European space law by 2024 are long overdue and should lay the groundwork for responsible, sustainable space activities, including standards for an effective space traffic management, space debris mitigation, emission reduction and off-set, as well as tackling issues of growing light pollution. 

With these issues addressed and new standards on sustainability and innovation on the horizon, the EU still has the potential to catch up – and harness all the benefits space activities can offer. 

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