Needed: A European space strategy

Space has immense potential to benefits Europe’s citizen in a range of areas, but it urgently need a coherent and joined-up legal approach, thinks Niklas Nienass
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By Niklas Nienass

Niklas Nienass (DE, Greens/EFA) is a member of Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee

03 Feb 2022

Space policy may seem like science fiction for many people, but better regulation for global space activities is not a concern of the distant future. Our societies are already heavily dependent on orbital technologies. From mobile communication to global navigation, from intelligence data to climate change mitigation — satellite infrastructure is one of the most important of our century. It is, however, also one of the least protected. While technology is making rapid leaps, international regulation lags behind.

There is a great deal happening in space. We see new private-sector players becoming the driving forces behind a radical transformation of spaceflight and its economics. We see powerful states such as the US, China and Russia put a new race to the moon into motion as well as a further militarisation of space. Almost daily, we see decisive developments.

“With Copernicus, Galileo and EGNOS, we have proven that the European Union is capable of facilitating world leading satellite programmes”

Take the recent launch of the James Webb telescope, the work of an impressive collaboration between the US NSA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Russia has successfully tested a missile launcher able to shoot down satellites. China has complained at the United Nations about an alleged near miss between its new space station and satellites run by American billionaire Elon Musk. It is becoming crowded in earth orbit — and conflicts and collisions seem only a matter of time.

The EU has to decide the role it wants to play in this increasingly contested terrain. It needs to tackle important questions like space traffic management, corporate liability and sustainability. We need to update international space law in order to ensure we preserve peace under new technological circumstances, and we need to invest in a European space economy and ensure that we do not fall behind our international competitors. European citizens should be able to benefit from state-of-the-art technology such as a satellite-based internet connection.

In order to prevent conflict, we need a global regulation of space activities, ultimately at UN level. Yet currently, even at a European level, the legislative landscape is fragmented. Several Member States have recently come forward with their own national space laws, and others are expected to follow. Does it not sound absurd to regulate outer space via 27 national laws; ultimately, space knows no borders. Before we further increase this fragmentation — which we would eventually have to harmonise anyway — why not pursue for a common European Space Law in the first place? A number of Member States have already indicated that they would support such a solution. A basic set of rules for a peaceful use of space, regulation for example the registration of satellites as well has liability, sustainability and mitigation of debris.

As for our own space activities, with Copernicus, Galileo and EGNOS, we have proven that the European Union is capable of facilitating world leading satellite programmes. Today, these technologies play a crucial role in the fight against climate change and reaching the goals of the European Green Deal. The Copernicus satellites observe the earth and deliver detailed data on emission levels, the conditions of the natural world and potential disasters. They help in protecting our biodiversity and provide valuable information for planning, monitoring and improving renewable energy production.

“We need to update international space law in order to ensure we preserve peace under new technological circumstances”

Galileo and EGNOS offer navigation and positioning services that improve efficiency across a variety of industries and thus help reducing GHG footprints. For example, the satellites enable both smart mobility and logistics and smart farming. As a result, they help to enhance supply chains, sustainable food production and the prevention of waste.

Satellite programmes are the cornerstone of European engagement in space. They are important assets for ensuring strategic autonomy, facilitating industry 4.0 and making European climate neutrality by 2050 a reality. It is therefore all the more worrying that the European Commission has just cut the budget of the Copernicus programme by €750 million following a post-Brexit funding gap — putting in danger the future of the whole operation. Interventions by several Member states as well as ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher asking the Commission to present alternative funding have been left unanswered.

The funding cut for the Copernicus programme comes at a time, where the so-called ‘Secure Connectivity Initiative’ is equally at risk at being downsized. Initially, the project was envisioned as a European satellite constellation providing fast internet connection in remote areas and bolstering the European space economy with large-scale public procurement. However, recent comments suggest that the initiative might be shrunk to become just another version of Govsatcom — a government communication service that is deeply unpopular among Member States and thus remains heavily underused.

I am convinced that the European Union can play a decisive role in the space race of the 21st century. However, this will only be possible if we speak with a unified voice. We need a clear strategy with adequate funding — and instead of 27 different national laws, as soon as possible, we need a common regulation. Let’s make European space activities a global example for peace, science and sustainable progress.

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