Blast-off: Europe’s place in the space race

An Ariane 5 launcher blasts off. [Photo: Arianespace]

Space exploration and exploitation has traditionally been the domain of the Americans and Russians. But Europe is in the mix too, through building the machines that put satellites in orbit and harbouring dreams of mining asteroids. Here’s what the future holds.

About 10% of EU GDP is reliant on activities linked to space policy, particularly in the transport sector, and billions of euros are dedicated from the EU budget to forwarding space policy.

Between 2007-2014, €5 billion was allocated, which increased to €13bn between 2014 and 2019. In the next long-term budget, it is expected to jump again to €16bn. Despite the increase though, spending is still four to six times lower than the US space budget.

In May, the EU Council said the bloc needs a “long-term, consolidated strategy in the field of space” and called for a “Space Council” to meet at least once a year to discuss shared goals.

National delegates also said that member states and the European Space Agency (ESA) need to collaborate better and make sure that Europe remains competitive in the sector, particularly when it comes to “marketing services”.

The EU’s interest in space policy is arguably less to do with the economic advantages offered and more to do with strategic autonomy.

In the first Iraq war, the US used its monopoly over the global positioning system (GPS) to great effect, helping to convince the EU to develop its own system, Galileo.

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Galileo is now the most accurate positioning system available and policymakers have been urged to start making full use of it. However, the system was laid low this week by a technical fault that is being addressed.

French MEP Dominique Riquet (Renew Europe) has pointed out that US cars have GPS equipped by default, whereas the EU still pushes technological neutrality.

“Perhaps the time has come for the Europeans to stop being too naive and to compete on equal terms with their fast-growing competitors,” Riquet recently wrote.

The MEP also suggested that the EU should make sure that it only uses local rocket launchers, in the same way as the US, Russia and China.

Launchpad Europe

One of the most challenging and fundamental parts of space policy is how to actually reach it. Europe has been launching satellites and unmanned spacecraft into orbit since the late 1970s via the Ariane rocket programme.

Now in its fifth iteration, with a sixth version on the way next year, Ariane’s first four rocket variations put 50% of the world’s commercial satellites into space and broke the US monopoly on the business.

The upcoming Ariane 6 will also be an expendable launch vehicle like the rest of the rocket’s family, unlike NASA’s now-retired space shuttle and Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher, which can be partly reused.

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But the Airbus-Safran-developed Ariane 6 aims to slash production costs and increase the number of possible launches to 12 a year. The idea is to use techniques like 3D printing, laser-surface treatment and better management to increase efficiency.

The combined effect is supposed to yield 40-50% cuts in production costs “in order to be competitive in the face of new market demands”, according to the company.

Europe’s industry is at a disadvantage compared to other global players though, as other markets like the US and Russia offer domestic launch providers long-term exclusive contracts.

By some estimates, the US market is worth €5bn a year while Europe’s worth is only €500m and the market is open to competitive bids. The EU institutions have been urged by operators like Airbus to make a firm commitment to launchers based in the bloc.

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Catering to clientele 

The Ariane launchers will stick to propelling satellites and other machinery into orbit for the foreseeable future, so Europe’s astronauts will still have to rely on the Americans and Russians to access the International Space Station or perform any other manned missions.

But the ESA is collaborating with NASA to develop the Orion spacecraft, a replacement vehicle for the shuttle programme, and will provide a module to supply astronauts with power, water and oxygen. Orion could be used for lunar missions or even a first trip to Mars.

In the meantime, Europe’s space efforts will remain concentrated on projects like the Copernicus and Galileo satellite programmes, the EU’s earth observation and global navigation systems.

Twenty-six Galileo satellites are now in orbit, after a successful Ariane launch last year deposited four more in space. The full constellation of 30 satellites is supposed to be completed next year, when the system will become the most accurate in the world.

“Space is becoming a new economic frontier, as it is vitally linked to a growing number of sectors and driving their profound modernisation,” European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said after the launch.

“In fact, 10% of the EU’s GDP is dependent on space-related services. We therefore need to strive for Europe’s global leadership and strategic autonomy,” he added.

Positioning and navigation firm Orolia last month launched a new commercial aircraft product that uses Galileo services. Its emergency locator beacon can be installed in cockpits or liferafts and will allow accurate search-and-rescue operations to find airplanes.

It is the first such product to use the satellite system’s services.

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Satellite success

While Galileo is more geared towards the economic side of things, Copernicus has found itself on the front line of issues like natural disasters and climate change.

The system has been used to track wildfires and show the full extent of flood damage, while one of its products also helps wind farm developers identify where best to build their installations. Data like wind speed, wave height and underwater currents is available. 

Other satellite constellations like Pleiades can produce 3D images of the planet, thanks to a tri-stereo formation of imaging cameras. It has been used for urban planning, agriculture and defence applications, among others.

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Satellites and their management could provoke an inter-institutional dispute soon though, as the Commission last year proposed renaming the current European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency as the European Union Agency for the Space Programme.

ESA complained that the proposed name change for the Czech Republic-based division would cause confusion with its own name and has also tried to head off any attempt to undermine its responsibilities.

The renamed agency is expected to have oversight over government satellite communications, which includes law enforcement, and space surveillance tracking (SST). ESA has balked at the plan to exclude it for SST activities.

Deep impact

Europe also has big plans to harvest the limitless resources on offer to bold space explorers. Perhaps surprisingly, Luxembourg is among the first movers in that regard and was the first in the world to adopt regulations on extraplanetary mining.

The legal status of off-Earth mining, still the realm of science fiction from a practical standpoint, is a grey area. The Outer Space Treaty, dating back to the 1960s, does not explicitly ban the practice but international challenges are likely to follow.

In May, the Grand Duchy signed an agreement with the US that is meant to be the template for future alliances and stimulate knowledge sharing. Russia has also made overtures to join in on the action.

But Luxembourg will have to be careful because if the memorandum of understanding evolves into something that spills over into trade policy, the country could be on a collision course with the Commission, as the EU executive has the exclusive right to negotiate deals.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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