Europe has already carried out autonomous exploration missions, such as Mars Express, which was launched in 2003 and is currently monitoring the Red Planet.
However, the EU's potential in this field is yet to be fully exploited, "because its actions are too piecemeal and because of the lack of linkage between space exploration and the political, economic and social challenges," according to draft Commission proposals obtained by EurActiv.
The document, approved this week by the College of the Commissioners, will be officially presented by EU Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani during a visit to the earth observation centre ESRIN, located near Rome.
Do what the Americans do
The EU's renewed interest in space will be pursued through "the development of essential technologies for exploration," in a bid to apply the benefits of technological development acquired from space projects to society as a whole, as the Americans usually do.
Energy, health and recycling are the sectors which the EU will identify as essential in exploration missions. Research in these fields will be carried out within the space industry but also by other relevant actors.
"Cross-fertilisation should be promoted with other sectors in order to benefit [...] citizens directly," the Commission paper reads, underscoring the benefits that such developments would bring in terms of EU industrial competitiveness.
EU's strategic expedition
Brussels also aims to widen European participation in the International Space Station, where a range of strategic experiments and observations are conducted.
Such a move would prompt increases in the number of people sent to the space station and generally herald more "independent access to space" for the EU. Ultimately, there will be an "increased European capability to pursue independent missions from Europe's space-port in Kourou," French Guyana, reads the Commission document.
Europe plays already a leading role in the strategic sector of satellite communication technologies, but in order to maintain this lead and to expand it to other space sub-sectors, research and industrial policy will have to be carefully developed.
Brussels wants to have an autonomous role in the key sector of launching technologies, both for manned and robotic missions, especially after the withdrawal of the US shuttle programme.
An entire market for space products should also be developed in the EU with the widespread participation of different actors, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), according to the Commission's plans.
Galileo and GMES
The Commission will present in 2011 a new legislative proposal on the EU's flagship space programme for satellite navigation, Galileo, and another on the satellite navigation project EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), with the aim of ensuring that "the satellite constellation required to pursue these programmes is put in place in a reasonable amount of time".
EU transport ministers, gathered yesterday (31 March) in Brussels, underlined that Galileo's initial operational capability should begin in 2014 or 2015.
The GMES programme for monitoring the sea, land and air environment should also become "fully operational by 2014". "The overall aim is to strengthen the climate change component of the GMES programme," the Commission will say.
Space observation indeed plays a key role in analysing how the climate is evolving, allowing scientists to better adapt to predicted changes.
The Commission will underline that the GMES programme for earth observation is also crucial for security purposes.
"This component must be enhanced," it will announce. The importance of such an instrument is particularly clear at a time when Europe is facing serious humanitarian emergencies at its borders.
GMES could indeed play a key role in monitoring borders, maritime surveillance, humanitarian aid, civil protection and offering wider support for the EU's external action.
Brussels is also offering to step up the role it plays in the overall security dimension of space policy, particularly by contributing to the development of new infrastructure.