EU reaches for the stars as new space programme lifts off

The moon next to a logo of the European Space Agency ESA at the International Astronautical Congress IAC in Bremen, northern Germany, 01 October 2018. [EPA-EFE/FOCKE STRANGMANN]

Europe has to play its role in leading on the sustainability of outer space and could increasingly contribute to the creation of a regulatory framework for space, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) told EURACTIV upon launch of the EU’s new space programme.

Space exploration and exploitation has traditionally been the domain of the Americans and Russians. The EU’s nascent interest in space policy is arguably less to do with the economic advantages offered and more to do with strategic autonomy.

The creation of a new branch in the European Commission – DG Defence Industry and Space (DEFIS), long resisted by Britain – has been the most recent attempt to put a European stamp on the emerging domain.

“Europe has to play its role in leading on the sustainability of outer space as much as Europe is leading on the sustainability of our planet on the surface,” ESA’s Director General Josef Aschbacher said, adding that he looks towards the European Commission to take a lead on this issue.

At present, there is only weak legislation that forms the basis of international space law, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that space will be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body or place weapons in the void.

“At the moment there is a bit of a ‘Wild West’ situation in space, where countries launch satellites and there’s the very little regulatory framework on what happens to and with them,” Aschbacher said.

Asked about whether Europe, a regulatory power, could take a lead on changing this, the ESA chief said that “Europe should play a very active role in space regulation”.

“Among the nations, in Europe regulation is pretty well-developed and in space, we have a need for this, especially when it comes to space management,” Aschbacher said.

He stressed that the amount of satellites launched in 2020 alone has been level with the amount launched in the entire past decade, and although Europe is only launching a small portion of satellites, it would create the need for better coordination.

“Countries where these private launch companies are located have a responsibility because they are giving the licences for the launches and the related frequencies, we have to make sure that regulation is starting at this point,” he added.

Most recently, with the continuous militarisation of space, EU policymakers have also started dropping their opposition to plans linking Europe’s civilian space assets with defence elements.

Asked if he is worried about the increasing securitisation of outer space, Aschbacher said that one “has to see what the others are doing in space and then derive what are the interests in you within this global context.”

“Space is not European, not Chinese, or American – it is, of course, global,” he added.

New EU space programme

Aschbacher’s comments came after the ESA and the EU signed a partnership deal on Tuesday (22 June) to mark the official launch of the EU’s new space programme, which aims to deepen member states’ investments in satellite navigation, Earth observation, space situational awareness, and secure communications.

Within the agreement, the EU will allocate nearly €9 billion in 2021-2027 for ESA and European industry to design new-generation systems and programmes.

The EU’s funding in the coming budgetary period will include developing the next generation of Europe’s satellite-navigation system, Galileo, and extending the scope and capabilities of its Copernicus-Sentinel Earth observation spacecraft.

Renewed funding for Galileo, Europe’s civil global satellite navigation system, is meant to support EU ambitions to develop navigation services for self-driving cars or autonomous drones.

Copernicus, which is set to become the biggest provider of free and open Earth observation data in the world, is slated to be used to monitor climate change and help the EU’s aim to cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

“Space is going through a massive transformation and rapid industrialisation, all around the world,” Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton said at Tuesday’s launch event.

“For Europe to maintain its leadership, we must rethink the way we do space in Europe. We must adapt to fast developments and anticipate new ones, and we must set an ambitious – and disruptive – space agenda for the future: Be more dynamic, more innovative, more risk-taking,” he added.

Aschbacher called the new programme “a major achievement for ESA, recognised for its scientific excellence and technical expertise in designing space systems and ground facilities for the benefit of European citizens”.

According to him, the enhanced cooperation would bring “a new ambition for space in Europe.”

Aschbacher also proposed a special summit next year to try to establish the level of space ambition in Europe.

Difficult negotiations

The deal on a Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) also details the roles and responsibilities of all partners, the European Commission, ESA, and EUSPA, the new EU space programme agency, which will oversee the EU’s activities on space policy.

“It will also ensure the level of autonomy of ESA that is necessary to efficiently develop and implement the programmes,” ESA said in a statement.

The need for such clarifications arose from the fact that the EU and ESA are separate entities with different levels of membership, with the latter being open to non-EU countries, like the UK.

The deal – formally sealed at the end of April – only became possible after the UK voted through the document at ESA’s ministers’ meetings last week, after two red lines on job discrimination of non-EU nationals and intellectual property rights on R&D developed in projects were respected.

After the UK decided to leave the EU, there have been worries that unfinished negotiations on security arrangement might become a stumbling block in further space cooperation between London and Brussels, as the development of some protocols is still a work in progress in the EU-UK post-Brexit talks.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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