The European space sector hesitates between independence and cooperation

Europe’s space sector is debating this week how to strike the right balance between fostering a vibrant new commercial sector and addressing hyper-sensitive issues around sovereignty and security.

Finding the best compromise on these two issues is at the heart of discussions this week at the European Space Forum 2022 in Brussels.

The two-day conference attracted 700 industry leaders in a hybrid format, with the Director General of the European Space Agency opening the event in a keynote.

Josef Aschbacher stressed the need for more private investment in European space exploration, while referring to strategic concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“The events of this year show that space tools are indispensable for a strong and independent Europe,” he said.

This creates an apparent contradiction: Europe says it wants to become an independent space power, while it encourages a rapidly growing commercial space sector.

Can you have both? It’s difficult, because a lot of companies that look at the EU market and move into the bloc are tied directly or indirectly to a parent company in Asia or North America, and even pure players EU countries may rely on technologies or launch services provided by third-party non-EU companies.

How does Europe strike the right balance?

One woman at the heart of this search for the right balance between security and commercialization is Evi Papantoniou, Deputy Director for Space and Head of the Space Policy Unit at the European Commission.

She told the 2022 EU Space Forum that the European Commission must ensure autonomous, reliable and cost-effective access to space by funding a new generation of launchers, which it is doing by spending Horizon Europe research funding and the new Cassini venture capital funds from the EU to help entrepreneurs.

Papantoniou also gave some insight into how the European Commission sees the future of the Secure Connectivity Constellation, a large-scale plan to launch a fleet of unhackable communications satellites announced in February by Commissioner Thierry Breton.

How the constellation is built, launched and managed will say a lot about the long-term direction of Europe’s space policy.

The argument in favor of the constellation is that the EU does not have its own space network to share information away from prying eyes, so the ‘union secure connectivity programme’, as it is call it, aims to offer a quantum-key encrypted messaging service to European governments. .

European Space Forum 2022

Panelists speak at the European Space Forum. – EU Space Forum 2022

Later, it will also offer commercial satellite internet service for poorly connected and rural areas.

Papantonious said the project should have the spirit of “open strategic autonomy,” a new term that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and debate around the word “open.”

It’s a concept that was debated at the forum with several speakers convinced that the recent addition of “open” means that pragmatism has won out over a tougher stance of demanding that all satellites be produced, launched and operated by European players.

Europe already has its own high-precision navigation system, Galileo, and a unique Earth observation network, Copernicus. Both were put in place to avoid reliance on US equivalents, which could be downgraded or blocked by the US government.

But the Secure Connectivity Program is somewhat different, as the project comes at a time when private companies are already building and offering similar satellite-based broadband services such as Space X’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper or OneWeb, which is owned to an Indian multinational, the United Kingdom. government and the French Eutelsat.

With such a strong list of well-funded players in this market and limited potential for more than five or six constellations in orbit, many wonder whether the European Commission would do better to work with these companies and focus on quality instead. and security of end-user services that can be offered, rather than pursuing a single stand-alone system.

Some established European space players are fiercely opposed to this idea. In a pre-event discussion, Evert Dudock, Vice President of Connected Intelligence at Airbus, asked delegates: “Can we really afford to rely on Amazon or Starlink for an entire system? comfortable if we weren’t independent.”

Another speaker echoed this sentiment.

Andre-Hubert Roussel, president of industry trade association Eurospace, said secure connectivity “must rely entirely on European capabilities”.

Amazon representatives in Europe counter that it’s not who owns the system that matters, pointing to the multitude of ocean telecommunications cables that connect the world, many of which are owned and operated by commercial companies serving governments.

Their argument: why should satellite communication be any different?

A Commission insider told Euronews that a model for this constellation is the construction of high-security government instruments in the EU under state contracts, alongside commercially operated satellite broadband equipment. on the same spacecraft.

Do we have enough rockets?

Getting into space has never been easy and currently the availability of launchers is a serious bottleneck for Europe’s space ambitions.

S Martin/ESA via AP

The Vega-C rocket takes off from its launch pad at the Kourou space base in French Guiana on July 13, 2022. -S Martin/ESA via AP

The veteran Soyuz launcher operated by Arianespace from French Guiana is no longer available, as Russian partners have withdrawn from cooperation and the long-awaited new Ariane 6 launcher continues to face delays. Scheduled for its first launch in 2020, the European Space Agency recently said it would not make its maiden launch until the fourth quarter of 2023.

Additionally, future Ariane 6 launch bookings by projects like Amazon’s Project Kuiper reduce the ability of other institutional and commercial spacecraft to get into orbit.

“That’s the next big thing we need to solve,” a Commission insider said.

Europe’s smallest Vega C launcher also has its share of misfortunes. Its upper-stage motor is made by Ukrainian company Yuzhmash, and while there is apparently good will to continue working together, the situation is difficult, with only a handful of motors reportedly remaining in stock with the producer of Vega C Avio in Italy.

Solutions emerge. The fast-growing rocket factory in Augsburg is developing a small launch vehicle for Earth observation satellites weighing up to 1,300 kilograms and recently signed agreements with the German space agency DLR and ESA.

However, he has yet to fly once. Other new European rocket companies are also expected to hit the scene later this decade, focused on the low-Earth orbit market for putting broadband and Earth observation spacecraft into orbit.

Keep the space clean

While launchers need urgent attention, many voices at the EU Space Forum 2022 also called for swift and concerted action to better manage space traffic in low orbit and to find effective and inexpensive tools to reduce space debris.

Twenty years ago, there were about 770 satellites in orbit, today there are about 5,000, and this figure could reach 100,000 in the years to come if all the projects are successful.

In the words of Inmarsat CEO Rajid Suri, it might suddenly feel “very, very crowded”. If left unregulated, debris in orbit could render some areas of low Earth orbit unusable, he warned.

Rodrigo da Costa, executive director of the European Union Space Program Agency (EUSPA), the body that oversees the operation of space programs such as Galileo, echoed this sense of urgency.

He told the crowd that managing European space traffic, including evasive maneuvers and de-orbiting obsolete satellites, must now be a priority.

You can follow the EU Space Forum 2022 online here: Euronews is the event’s media partner.

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