Failure to launch: EU faces steep climb in its race for a spot in low-Earth orbit

Competition is stiff for the EU as it works on plans to deploy its first homegrown constellation of satellites and catch up to space-faring nations and venture capitalists alike

By Gabriela Galindo

Gabriela is an agriculture and EU affairs reporter currently based in Brussels.

17 Oct 2023

A new space race is underway and the European Union is in a scramble to take a bite out of the cosmic pie.

While last century’s neck-and-neck between the United States and the former Soviet Union was all about shooting everything from probes and satellites to dogs and humans into the starry vault, this time around, the scramble is all about strategic placement.

“What this space race really is about is ownership,” Niklas Nienass, a German MEP with the Greens/EFA, tells The Parliament. “It's not about being there first, but [about] being there for a long time.”

Nienass, who specialises in EU space policy, says that a crucial factor fuelling this second race to space is a shared understanding among nations – and, increasingly, businesses – that “there is no unlimited space in space”.

In the 60 years since the cold war kicked off the first era of space exploration, human presence in space has expanded significantly. Today, 91 countries have at least one satellite in orbit, according to a July report by the United Nations, while an array of other orbiting probes and spacecraft – from the International Space Station to communication, navigation and weather observation satellite constellations – provide services that have become essential to life on Earth as we know it.

Growing private sector interest in providing commercial outer space exploration services over the last decade has also led to a sharp rise in the number of yearly space flights aiming to set satellite networks into orbit, laying the groundwork for a budding space economy which last year was valued at $464bn (€434bn) and is projected to surpass $737bn (€689bn) within a decade.

What this space race really is about is ownership

In its  recent report, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, says  2021 was “the third in a series of record-breaking years in terms of objects launched into outer space” – a record that was broken again last year. The uptick in activity, the UN office says, could be linked to an “increasing realisation of the power of space assets coupled with more affordable access to the space environment”, in what it predicts is heralding the advent of a “new era in space flight operations.”

As space race 2.0 gains momentum, the orbital region closest to the Earth, known as low-Earth orbit, is among the most coveted – and is only set to become increasingly crowded, as both space-faring nations and companies look to stake their claim on the strategic orbits that lay there.

According to the European Space Agency, low-Earth orbit is located anywhere between 160km and 1,000kmabove the planet’s surface. This makes probes in low-Earth orbit easier to operate and manoeuvre, as well as cheaper to put into orbit, supply and refuel. Crucial space infrastructure, including the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and the majority of artificial satellite constellations, already operate in low-Earth orbit. 

As the business sector moves in on the low-Earth orbit arena, available room for future satellite constellations is running out. “Everybody who is at the moment taking these orbits is effectively blocking them for us,” Nienass says. “So, there is an interest in using up as much space in orbit as you can.”

Giuseppe Porcaro, head of outreach, governance and human resources at the Brussels-based economic policy think tank, Bruegel, where he follows industrial and tech policy, says that, as far as business involvement goes, SpaceX, the aerospace company co-founded by billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk, is “the only one actor that stands out from everyone else”.

Starlink, its 5,000-strong satellite constellation, today provides internet connectivity to more than  60 countries, and made headlines at the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine by offering to keep Ukraine online throughout the war. But Porcaro, a political geographer by training, said that, when it came to the space economy overall, the real disruptor is its Falcon 9 reusable launcher rocket, the first of its kind, with which the company has “developed the cheapest way” to  shoot  probes into orbit, a feat which Porcaro says has  “completely changed the whole environment.”

In an effort to catch up, the EU recently unveiled plans to develop its own homegrown and secure satellite constellation infrastructure. The constellation will include probes in low-Earth orbit that will work in concert with the EU’s two other existing satellite networks, Galileo and Copernicus, which provide GPS navigation and Earth observation services, respectively.

The project, named Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite, or Iris2, was unveiled by the Commission last year and is slated to be fully up and running by 2027. Out of a total budget of €6bn, €2.4bn would come from the regular EU budget, with the remainder expected to come from the coffers of EU countries and private sector investment.

The final product will outfit the bloc with a fully  EU-owned and EU-operated satellite constellation that will provide fast, secure and reliable telecommunications services to EU authorities and businesses, and ensure broadband internet connectivity, including in remote or dead-zone areas.

The Commission says Iris2 is “the EU’s response” to the pressing imperative of deploying a sovereign space-based communications network capable of ensuring connectivity even throughout crisis scenarios that could compromise land-based telecoms infrastructure.

Launching its own low-Earth orbit constellation will also mean that the EU’s communication capacities will no longer be dependent on constellations operated by third countries or private companies, such as SpaceX.

At a press conference in February, Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, stressed  that the secure and sovereign aspect of Iris2 was “essential”, sincethe EU could no longer continue to rely on and operate existing constellations but must  define and deliver on its own needs.

 Bruegel’s Porcaro agrees there are certain sectors where the EU should cut back on its dependencies with other countries, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as one example of how global value chains and relations can be rattled by crises which “are not always geopolitical” in nature. “So when it comes to sensitive, strategic technology, we also need our own,” he says.

According to the current timeline, the ambition is for Iris2 to begin delivering “initial services” as early as next year. In an emailed statement, a Commission spokesperson says that these services will build on the EU’s existing satellite-based government communications network, Govsatcom, to create a communications hub that will serve as an interface between EU countries’ competent authorities and satellite resource providers.

But several observers point out that the EU has a long way to go before Iris2 reaches its destination in orbit. 

“We need to build satellites; we need to build rockets in order to have the capabilities [required] in the future, and this needs to be done in Europe,” says Nienass, the Greens/EFA’s shadow rapporteur for Iris2.

However, both Nienass and Porcaro point out  a glaring gap in the EU’s low-Earth orbit ambitions: so far, the EU  has neither a working launcher rocket nor the capabilities to build one that could  the launch-cost operations of leading competitors,  such as SpaceX.

Ariane 5, until recently the EU’s main launcher rocket, was retired earlier this year and its successor, Ariane 6, has been marred by delays and is currently not expected to fly before 2024. What is more, Nienass points out with some frustration, is that its first 18 space flights have already been bought up by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos for his own low-Earth orbit satellite constellation, called Project Kuiper, which aims to begin delivering broadband services in Europe and Africa as early as next year.

 This puts the bloc in the paradoxical position of having to rely on foreign-owned rockets to shoot up the satellite constellation meant to lay the groundworks for its sovereign satellite communications network.   

We need to build satellites; we need to build rockets in order to have the capabilities [required] in the future

The EU had also been using Russia’s Soyuz launcher rockets but suspended co-operation with Moscow last year, following sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine. “This means that, at the moment, we don't have the capability to even fly into space on our own behalf. If Europe was to  be isolated, we would have no launcher to bring [us] to space,” Nienass says. “This should not be. We cannot be in a sovereign state or union if we have no capability to go up [to] space.”

With successful space flights, such as India’s recent landing near the south pole of the moon, only expected to accelerate in the coming years, the pressure is on for the EU to secure its place in space, and in particular, in low-Earth orbit. “[Because] in the future, if you don’t have orbits, then you have a problem,” Nienass says.

Nienass stresses that European companies are already “really good in space” andit is now up to the EU to foster a competitive and dynamic space industry capable of developing cost-effective innovations, while ensuring appropriate management of investment risks.

In May, the European Space Agency launched the Commercial Cargo Transportation Initiative, aimed at getting private companies to compete to develop commercial cargo transportation services for low-Earth orbit. The scheme is modelled after a similar Nasa initiative, launched in 2013, which provided expertise and substantial funding to two private companies, including Space X, allowing them to develop cheaper cargo transportation services, giving the US a decisive lead in the commercial space race.  

According to Porcaro, the Nasa programme, called the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, was crucial to SpaceX’s current success. “If you look at the success of SpaceX, you also see that there is a story about Nasa changing its procurement rules,” he says, adding that the way the company “has been using public funding by Nasa is essential to understand why [Musk] actually managed to make Falcon 9 the cheapest and more reliable way of putting something in orbit”.

In the emailed statement, the Commission official says start-ups with “innovative approaches to technology and business models” will be crucial for Iris2 and for the broader space industry ecosystem it is trying to build. To ensure this, the official said that Iris2 procurement process includes provisions to ensure contracts are awarded to start-ups and SMEs.

But, while he applaudsthe EU’s ambitions, Porcaro notesit will be a real challenge to deliver on that front while at the same time supporting its incumbent heavy lifters, such as ArianeGroup, the French aerospace company behind the EU’s main launcher rocket, which he says areclosest to delivering on orbital launchers that could be cost-effective enough to compete with SpaceX.

The EU’s new support scheme, Porcaro adds, is a step in the right direction but one which will require decisive and bold industrial  policy action in order to close the 10-year gap with Nasa, but also  with other international space players, like China, which is also seeking to boost its space industry. And with an initial budget of just €2 million, which pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that NASA injected into COTS, it remains to be seen whether the EU’s Commercial Cargo Transportation Initiative will give space companies the lift-off they need to catch up to their peers.

The retirement of the International Space Station by the end of this decade is one major event set to free up a crucial low-Earth orbit spot – and one which several players, both public and private, are already eyeing. Nasa’s vision for commercially-operated space stations to replace the International Space Station are in the works since at least 2020, with leading US aerospace and defence companies, including Bezos’ Blue Origin, Axiom Space, Northrop Grumman and NanoRacks, having received funding from the agency to develop space station designs or components.

In its vision for a future low-Earth orbit economy, NASA says it aims “to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which Nasa is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower cost.”

If both its ambition to make Iris2 the first EU-owned satellite constellation, and its broader space vision, are to succeed, the EU will need to ensure its aerospace sector can deliver; or, according to Porcaro, risk ending up in a situation where “we cannot really compete with the United States [or] with China – because we won’t have the same level of [investments]”.

To make upthe lost time, the EU’s best bet might be to focus on carving out a niche sector in the space market, one where both Nienass and Porcaro suggest it already has a global lead – sustainability.

“The future of space is sustainable space, there's no way around it,”Nienass says. “So, if we are the first ones, we will be the first in space.”

The Iris2 constellation initiative, is the first space programto include sustainability criteria for launching probes into orbit,Nienass says, which will require  companies prevent space debris proliferation and light pollution and work with  carbon footprint offsetting mechanisms.

The Commission is currently fleshing out the specifics of the rules, whichNienass says will apply not only to EU-based companies but also to any operators wishing to offer their services on EU soil, with the aim of setting a global standard. “So, if Elon Musk wants to provide his Starlink to European citizens,he needs to follow these sustainability criteria,” he explains.

The European Space Agency is also currently working with a Swiss company to develop the world’s first active debris removal mission, which aims to launch in 2025 and recover the parts of its now-retiredVega satellite launcher.

But with more than 30,000 pieces of space debris currently orbiting the Earth and heightening the risk of a catastrophic chain reaction collision which could lead to catastrophic communication and navigation network outages, Porcaro stresses the need for a new international governance framework covering space exploration, traffic management and the risks posed by space debris.

However,the prospects for global co-operation in space looked much more promising in the early 2000s, he says, describing them as “compromised” in the current geopolitical climate. “Probably, eventually, we are going to get there,” he concedes.

Be it for space debris, sustainable resource extraction, or efficient traffic management and cooperation in space, the momentum is there for the EU to become a leader when it comes to sustainable space exploration, Nienass says.

“We need to bring this understanding to the world that space is a common good,” he says, adding that the EU has a leading role to play in ensuring that all countries can have a role to play in space in the future.



Read the most recent articles written by Gabriela Galindo - Why the EU's gender justice bill leaves the most vulnerable behind