EU Space Policy: New challenges, new opportunities

Europe has the leadership, industrial capacity and experience be a global space leader, argues Timo Pesonen.
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By Timo Pesonen

Timo Pesonen is European Commission’s Director-General for Defence Industry and Space

02 Feb 2022

Europe has all it takes to be a global space leader. It has talents. It has industrial capacity. It has technological leadership. It has the experience of ambitious space missions and programmes, such as Galileo and Copernicus. But there is no time for complacency. The space sector is undergoing massive transformations, which bring a lot of new challenges and opportunities. 

On one side, the booming of private operators changes the business model of space. Besides national agencies and public spending, there is a growing and vibrant private sector, combining both large and small industry, space and non-space ecosystems. This is a major opportunity for Europe. We need to unleash this opportunity. But this means also that we may have to rethink the way we do space in Europe. 

“The space sector is undergoing massive transformations, which bring a lot of new challenges and opportunities”

On the other side, space is exponentially a contested domain. The recent Russian anti-missile test made it clear: space is a strategic place where big powers are now competing. Europe must defend its interests and freedom to operate in space. This brings a new strategic dimension to space that must become a strong driver of our strategies. 

Against this background, the European Commission has set an ambitious agenda for 2022, which is structured around four key priorities. 
Priority #1: Consolidating our existing assets: Galileo is the best satellites navigation system in the world.

However, our competitors are moving fast. This is why the Commission has accelerated the deployment of the second generation, not to lose time and to make sure we remain in the driving seat.

The first satellites of this second generation will be placed in orbit by the end of 2024. With this new generation, Galileo will operate real technological breakthroughs with highly innovative satellites and technologies, such as digitally configurable antennas, inter-satellite links, new atomic clocks technologies, use of full electric propulsion systems and more. 

Copernicus is the best earth observation system in the world. However, it is facing a growing and very acute competition from private actors. While keeping the fundamentals of Copernicus, we need to rethink how it works and how it can better answer the evolving needs towards more green, more digital, more resilience, more reactivity. In a few weeks, we will have the opportunity to present this Copernicus modernisation strategy. 

“On Space-based connectivity, the Commission will present to the European Parliament and to the Council a legislative proposal in the coming weeks”

On launchers, Europe has the chance to have highly reliable launchers with Ariane and Vega. This is due to decades of investments and accumulated know-how in a strategic asset for Europe’s autonomy in the access to space. But here again, the competition, both economically and technologically, is fierce. It threatens the very model of our launchers.

Thus, we must develop a fully fledge European Launcher strategy that will ensure our global position and our autonomy for the next 20 to 30 years. The Commission will soon launch the European Space Launcher alliance. It should look at defining a holistic European approach to launchers, combining the need to consolidate and modernise our existing - and indispensable – strategic launchers while setting the right framework for small and micro launchers to emerge. 

Priority #2: Projecting Europe into the realities of tomorrow: Europe should equip itself with a space based connectivity infrastructure, as well as strong Space Traffic Management capacities, projecting Europe into the realities of tomorrow, anticipating future challenges and avoiding potential strategic dependencies. 
On Space-based connectivity, the Commission will present to the European Parliament and to the Council a legislative proposal in the coming weeks.

This infrastructure will make available high-speed internet access to all Europeans, putting an end to dead zones; it will set up an ultra-secure infrastructure thanks to quantum encryption and will ensure redundancy with terrestrial infrastructures and thus allow Europe to remain connected whatever happens on terrestrial networks. Once presented, we count on the European Parliament and the Council to move fast so we can hopefully have the first services deployed already in 2024. It is ambitious but feasible. 

The second critical initiative to be launched in the coming weeks is about defining an EU strategy for Space Traffic Management. An increasingly congested space is threatening the viability and security of space infrastructure and operations. 1 million debris are orbiting around earth - and this figure is constantly increasing! It is expected that in the years to come, more than 30 000 additional satellites will be launched.

The EU has already surveillance and tracking capability, thanks to the EU SST consortium. Yet, there is a need to go further, by strengthening existing capabilities in order to reduce our dependencies and be able to monitor autonomously space in order to enhance our collective situation awareness of threats to European or national space assets. 

Priority #3: Spurring European innovativeness: It is imperative for Europe to develop a real strategy to spur innovation in space. First, through the first ever Space Partnership that will bring together the space industry, research and technology organisations, academia and public authorities, with one aim: designing, through technological roadmaps a long-term plan, and coordinate investment in space innovation. 

Second, using public procurement in a strategic way. Public procurement lowers commercial risk and provides long-term prospects to stabilise the business of a small company, in particular New Space start-ups. It also has a positive effect on private investors. In turn, the involvement of start-ups can bring new solutions and innovative ideas in support of our flagship programmes. In the same vein, we will also use public procurement to test and de-risk new solutions. 

“Beyond the traditional defence domains, we collectively face new threats in new strategic and contested areas. It is the case with cyber; it is also the case with space, as space is crucial for our security”

This is precisely the purpose of our In-Orbit Validation/Demonstration initiative. For a new entrant, space flight heritage in real conditions is a must. Without it, there is no commercial opportunity. We will also use public procurement to stimulate the launcher ecosystem, in particular for mini- and micro launchers, by giving them launch service opportunities. This is the flight ticket initiative. As of 2023, new launch systems will have the possibility to provide launch services for certain institutional launches, starting with In-Orbit Demonstration and Validation. 

Third, access to finance is also critical for innovation. On 25 January, the Commission and the European Investment Fund launched the CASSINI Seed and Growth Funding Facility. It will deploy an investment capacity of at least €1bn in support of space entrepreneurship. Europe is not short of companies that have disruptive ideas and technologies but many of them cannot get sizeable equity investment in the EU once they need to scale up.

They have no choice but to turn to non-EU investors. This is a major loss for Europe. The Cassini Fund will be a game changer. It will be complemented by a debt instrument through the European Investment Bank, to make sure that new space companies get access to loans. All this combined should facilitate the emergence of European space unicorns in the near future. 

Priority #4: Strengthening our resilience in and from space: Two weeks ago, EU defence ministers, together with the High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell, discussed about the strategic nature of space and the need to have a plan on how to enhance our resilience in and from space. Beyond the traditional defence domains, we collectively face new threats in new strategic and contested areas. It is the case with cyber; it is also the case with space, as space is crucial for our security. 

This is why we are proposing - as part of the Strategic Compass - to put forward by next year a Space Strategy for security and defence. Europe should also reduce its technological dependencies and reinforce its value chains in critical sectors for space such as quantum, artificial intelligence and chips. This is critical to ensure the integrity, the security and the operations of our space infrastructures. 

Last, we should set up a new governance to best respond to the threats to the EU space programme. In addition to the crisis management protocol, established under the responsibility of the High Representative, we could better organise joint situational awareness on the basis of space data and services, the interaction between Member States and the cooperation between the different bodies operating our infrastructures.