Euronews investigates how the space sector is making a strong push to become more business-minded as Europe’s space leaders meet digitally in Brussels at the new European Space Forum. According to ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, “supporting startups is a significant priority” for the agency as it tries to compete in an increasingly crowded and dynamic market where Europe has been accused of falling behind.
In an interview with Euronews, Aschbacher described how the European Space Agency (ESA) has established a new directorate for commercialization, industrial policy, and procurement, which is led by space strategy expert Géraldine Naja. The goal is to make Europe a fruitful environment for so-called “New Space” operators, which are enterprises that use existing and upcoming space technologies to develop entirely commercial businesses.
“Encouraging people to take more chances, be speedier in implementing initiatives, and helping them both through faster action on the side of ESA,” he says, is a focus for his tenure. Despite the fact that the space industry applauds the move, Olivier Lemaitre, Secretary General of industry association ASD-Eurospace, warns that a “European SpaceX” is unlikely to emerge anytime soon.
He tells Euronews that space budgets in Europe are dispersed between countries and are six times lower than in the United States. “Some public officials overlook this fact, believing that we can perform as well as the United States with six times the budget,” he argues.
ESA’s pro-business signals come as the European Commission’s own space agency, the European Union Agency for the Space Programme, continues to take flight. The EUSPA was recently established with the goal of maximizing the benefits of European Commission-funded space programs like the Galileo navigation system, the Copernicus earth observation network, and the EGNOS positioning and navigation tool.
These two organizations, ESA and EUSPA, both claim to be working to promote a ‘globally competitive’ European space industry. Which begs the question: do we really need both of them running at the same time?
“It’s a good question,” Aschbacher responds, “but they are clearly working in a very complicated and complimentary fashion now.” He emphasizes that ESA’s responsibility is to develop the technical aspects of new satellite technologies and launchers, whilst the European Commission has the political clout to get large-scale programs like Galileo off the ground.
However, it remains to be seen whether Europe, through ESA and EUSPA, can nurture the creation of large new commercial entities by creating an inventive and flexible environment.
What’s the future for Coperncius?
The future of Copernicus will be another hot topic at the European Space Forum. ‘Copernicus,’ which was launched in 2014, gives Europe ongoing, independent, and dependable access to satellite Earth observation data and information. “We have eight satellites running beautifully, we have 400,000 people registered, and 250 gigabytes of data are downloaded every day,” Simonetta Cheli, shortly to be head of Earth Observation at ESA, tells Euronews.
She does confess, however, that the program is experiencing budget challenges as a result of “high level political considerations” relating to Brexit (the UK is an active ESA member but no longer in the EU), with a €750 million funding shortage that she is hopeful will be resolved shortly. ASD-Lemaitre Eurospace’s likewise believes that the funding problem can be solved. “We need to show goodwill on both sides,” he continues, “and if we give each other enough time, we might be able to move forward.”
In the future, Cheli says the Copernicus program will focus on issues like Arctic monitoring and CO2 emissions observations, both of which are critical in a post-COP26 political scenario. Private firms, on the other hand, compete with Copernicus in high-resolution Earth imagery, and Cheli adds that one of the preferred paths forward is to develop methods to incorporate these commercial activities into the Copernicus systems in a mutually beneficial way.
Lemaitre points out that there is a tendency to exaggerate Copernicus’ commercial potential, which he claims was originally intended to provide high-quality data to government agencies and scientific organizations.
He believes that the Earth observation field has significant commercial potential, but that there are hurdles to data access, and that powerful AI and high-performance computer technologies are required to fully exploit the data collected by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite fleet.