Europe to enter new space race… after 2020

Tesla founder Elon Musk's SpaceX pioneered the technology of reusable rockets. [Steve Jurvetson/Flickr]

Brexit negotiations with the UK are forcing the European Commission to postpone funding for reusable rockets until after 2020, despite the importance of the technology for the future of European space policy.

The world is embarking on a new space race. Except this time around, the top contenders are not the two global superpowers of the past century – the US and the USSR – but entrepreneurs.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and Space X, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, are competing neck and neck to clinch the ‘holy grail’ of space policy – reusable rockets.

Fearing being left aside, Europe has finally decided to enter the fray. Philippe Brunet, director at the European Commission’s internal market, industry and entrepreneurship directorate (DG Growth), said the executive was seeking funding to support the disruptive technology.

But the proposal will be part of the EU’s next long term budget for 2021-2027, he told a conference about European Space Policy on Wednesday (25 January).

Too little, too late?

This might be too little too late.

After decades of trials and zillions of dollars spent on space exploration and launching satellites, Musk and Bezos finally succeeded in launching a rocket capable of landing back on earth.

Rockets are by far the most expensive part of space missions so the ability of reusing them would dramatically cut down costs, opening a new era for space exploration, including interplanetary travels.

Space X is already deploying satellites using this technology. Blue Origin unveiled a new generation of reusable rockets able of flying missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

China also started testing this type of rockets last Spring.

To date, Europe is far from matching the dynamism seen in the US. Few startups are working on reusable rockets, and their figures are modest compared to what is seen in America.

Spanish startup PLD is the first to develop reusable rockets for small satellites in Europe. Its first commercial launch is expected in 2018. The firm got €1.2 million in 2013 in its first round of investment. Early this year, it secured  an additional €6.7 million. By contrast, SpaceX got $1 billion in its last funding round, mainly coming from Alphabet, the parent company of Internet search giant Google.

EU institutions now intend to join the race with the objective of pushing European efforts in fields such as data collection for geo-localisation services, precision farming or even asteroid mining.

Commission wants EU space strategy to boost growth in data-hungry private sector

The European Commission wants to step up European companies’ role in the space industry by making it easier to access data from satellites, which the executive hopes will help increasingly data-dependent areas like car manufacturing and agriculture.

Brunet said the Commission will propose supporting the technology as part of a public-private partnership (Joint Technology Initiative) for cutting-edge space projects under the EU’s next multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2021-2027.

He explained that negotiations for Britain to exit the EU were making it difficult to consider re-channeling existing funds for Space project as part of the mid-term review of the existing MFF.

The Commission intends to make a proposal for the next MFF before the end of 2017.

Disruptive technology

Brunet explained that the upcoming JTI will support “disruptive technologies” such as reusable rockets. JTIs are public/private partnerships in which public money is matched by private contributions. They are seen as a solution to address risk aversion in Europe when it comes to space projects, which are often capital-intensive.

To date, European companies remain highly dependent on public funding to finance their ‘moonshots’. The venture capital market is markedly smaller on the old continent than in the US.

Rainer Horn, Managing Partner at SpaceTec partners, highlighted the contrast between the EU and US ecosystems at the Brussels conference. In the US, investors “are ready to listen” to success stories, whereas in Europe it is more difficult to attract funding for space projects, he remarked.

Making Europe more agile in space

The European space sector is increasingly challenged by international competition in commercial markets. The Space Strategy for Europe proposes four goals for the EU to remain an industry leader, writes Jean-Loic Galle.

“We call for more smart capital to lubricate the system” and to finance entrepreneurs and business ideas in this sector, he said.

Eric Morel, Director of Industry, Procurement and Legal Services at the European Space Agency, said European players “could learn a lot” from newcomers in the space sector like Amazon.

But he urged decision-makers and private companies to step up their efforts, warning that in the space as in the tech world, the “winner takes all”.

A total of €12 billion is set aside for the EU’s three space programmes under the EU's current long-term budget (2014-2020):

  1. Satellite navigation: The Galileo and EGNOS programmes which provide positioning, navigation, and timing information worldwide.
  2. Earth observation: The Copernicus programme which provides Earth observation data and information.
  3. Space research: Part of the Horizon 2020 programme, it focuses specifically on space technologies, applications (e.g. GNSS and Earth observation), weather, sciences, exploration, and other space related topics.

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