One small step for Europe: The USA currently spends almost six times as much on space research and exploration as the EU does, not to mention private investment from companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Acknowledging how space is becoming an ever more critical geopolitical theatre, what should the EU do to ensure it is not left behind in the new space race?
By Gerrard Drishti (AL)
Historically, the European space programme was overshadowed by other big space agencies such as NASA or the Soviet space agency, but today the European Space Agency (ESA) is one of the biggest space agencies in the world, with its own spaceport, rocket launcher technology, and 2200 employees from every Member State. Despite this, only one-third of satellites are manufactured in the EU. Europe also falls behind in manned space travel. As of today, the EU has no plans for manned space travel, while its American counterpart NASA has plans for a Moon landing as soon as 2025, with the Chinese and Indian space agencies not falling behind. In 2040, the market of space is projected to be about EUR 1.2 trillion, and space is becoming ever more important in the geopolitical scene because of the observational and monitoring opportunities it offers for areas like science and security. Should the EU change its current 2027 plan and what should the EU do to not fall behind its competitors?
Key Actors and Measures
The European Space Agency (ESA)
The ESA has 22 Member states and is independent of the EU. Despite this, the EU funds 26% of ESA’s budget. The Agency is responsible for most space programmes within European Borders. Its main goal is to frame and execute Europe’s space missions while ensuring that its investments benefit Europeans and people around the world.
European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA)
The EUSPA is responsible for ensuring the implementation of the European Space Programme of Europe’s space missions. This agency works closely with the ESA in ensuring the safety of current space programs such as Galileo and EGNOS. The EUSPA is also responsible for delivering Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and works on the Secure Connectivity Initiative.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament has the power to agree to or change proposals from the European Commission and can make EU-level decisions. In April 2021 new regulations regarding the European space program for the upcoming six years were adopted. These new regulations are set to simplify the current legal framework while standardising the security framework of the European Space Program.
The European Commission
The European Commission is the EU institution whose primary function is to propose legislation. This institution provides important political guidance to space activities such as setting the budget for flagship programmes like Galileo and EGNOS. The Commission’s Space Strategy sets goals for the EUSPA for the upcoming six years to improve the European presence in space while ensuring a safe and gradual improvement in this field.
The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation that consists of 192 member states, 27 of which are part of the EU. The UN has been a key regulator when it came to space ever since the first space race between NASA and the Soviet space agency. Its main contribution to regulating space is the United Nations Treaties and Principles on Outer Space. This treaty ensures that space is a safe place for all humans and ensures equal grounds for all space agencies to work on their space programmes.
Key words and Core Concepts
- The flagship EU space programmes are the three main satellite programmes which the ESA and the EUSPA have launched into space. These three programmes have a large impact on the life of many Europeans and beyond.
- Copernicus is currently the most advanced Earth observation system and collects data on topics such as atmospheric gases, marinelife, and climate change.
- Galileo, the EU’s own global navigation satellite system, provides highly accurate GPS data.
- EGNOS provides navigation data which is important to aviation, maritime, and land-based users throughout the EU.
- A space agency is a government or private agency which is engaged in all activities related to space and space exploration. Europe’s most important space agency is the ESA followed by the EUSPA which is the European Union’s space agency.
- Space exploration is the discovery and observation of other non-terrestrial objects, including other planets, satellites, asteroids, and solar systems. Space exploration can be done either by sending humans or robots into space. The most common way of space exploration today is through satellites or sending rovers to nearby planets. The last time humans stepped on another orbital object was in 1972.
- An Orbit is an elliptical path that an object follows around a planet or star because of its gravitational effect. Orbiting Earth is very important for satellites to stay in place. Currently, European satellites are spread between different Earth orbits, mainly low Earth ones, but the huge number of satellites being sent into space is making it more difficult for institutions to track or correctly deploy new satellites.
- The International Space Station (ISS) is a large spacecraft that orbits Earth where up to seven astronauts live in order to complete scientific research. The ISS welcomes astronauts from every space agency and is a neutral place for agencies to research. The ISS contains 16 pressurised modules only one of which comes from the ESA. As a contributor, the ESA has frequently sent its astronauts to the ISS.
Key issues and conflicts
Most Europeans are interested in space and want the Union to continue its approach in space, but on the other hand, many are sceptical about Europe further investing in space. The financial costs that space programmes bring with them are huge, and for many Europeans, their opinion lies in firstly fixing problems that we currently have within the atmosphere rather than out of it.
However, that’s exactly what the ESA together with the EUSPA are doing. The EU’s flagship programmes like Galileo and EGNOS focus on monitoring and predicting weather conditions, giving users a better GPS experience, and increasing security both for people on earth and satellites orbiting it. These satellites have helped thousands of Europeans and have helped in preventing millions of euros in damage. These advancements have put Europe in an important position regarding space but still, Europe falls behind in comparison to other space agencies. Space X, a private American space agency, is planning on sending 30.000 satellites into earth orbit with its Starlink project, making European connectivity satellites less important in the satellite scene.
European space projects are small compared to other space agencies’ space programmes. One of the main reasons for this is the way the ESA is funded. Private investment from the ESA is a tenth of what it is in the USA. The difference in funding also comes from the different views countries have on space. The US sees space as a key economic asset to be exploited. ESA funding comes at a set percentage of a member country’s GDP while the EUSPA is funded in the same way as other EU institutions are funded, whereas the US sets new funding for NASA each year based on its ambitions.
The ESA has its own spaceport from which it can launch its latest and most advanced rocket, Ariane 6. This rocket is planned to launch many important EU space missions into space and is one of the biggest technological advancements of the ESA, but launching Ariane 6 comes at a huge cost. Compared to competitors such as Space X whose rockets are reusable, the number of missions launched from the ESA is very limited compared to the ones from Space X, which also takes public contracts from NASA for its missions.
Space exploration and Space security
While European satellites are the pride of the ESA, Europe falls behind in space exploration. In its current 2027 programme, the ESA, together with the EUSPA, has no clear goals in terms of sending rovers or even humans to the moon or nearby planets. Despite the ESA having seven astronauts in its staff, this trained crew has never made it past the ISS. With the operations of the ISS going as soon as 2024 out of service the EU is going to have no way of sending its own astronauts into orbit. This could mean that it might fall behind as it won’t have the trained staff for future interplanetary missions.
With the USA and China planning to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars, the EU is trying to catch up. With space becoming an evermore important geopolitical asset, many countries are racing into having their own piece in space. The EU as an important player in space should ensure its position and security for its and other agencies satellites in pact with the United Nations Treaties and Principles on Outer Space. Currently, France is the only member in the EU which has its own Space Force which aims to keep track of important satellites and monitor other agencies activity in space.
- What approach should the ESA and the EUSPA take on their space programmes?
- How can the EU further increase public interest in space exploration?
- How can the ESA and the EUSPA fully benefit from each other while keeping their independence?
- Should the ESA look for different ways of funding to further boost its research?
- Should the EU change its current 2027 plan and what should the EU do to not fall behind its competitors?
- How can the EU prepare for an ISS shutdown?
- In which way can the EU ensure security in space for itself and fellow agencies?
Things to look at
- “Can Europe compete in the Space Race?”, YouTube video by Into Europe
- “Europe risks being left out of the Space Race” article by the Politico
- “Europe wants to make a great leap in the Space Race” article by Science Business
- “EU space and the Coronavirus” article by Copernicus.eu
- “EU space policy: an underestimated success” article by Robert Schuman Foundation