The European space sector is discussing this week on how to strike the perfect balance between encouraging a dynamic new business sector and addressing hypersensitive issues of sovereignty and security.
Finding the best compromise on these two issues is at the heart of this week’s discussions 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 with a keynote address.
Josef Aschbacher stressed the need for more private investment in European space exploration, while referring to strategic concerns about the Russian war in Ukraine.
“This year’s events show that space tools are indispensable for a strong and independent Europe,” he said.
This is an apparent contradiction: Europe claims it wants to become an independent space power, while encouraging a rapidly growing commercial space sector.
Can you have both? It is difficult, because many of the companies that observe the EU market and open shops within the block are directly or indirectly linked to a parent company in Asia or North America, and even pure EU players can rely on on technologies or launch services provided by non-European third-party companies.
How does Europe find the right balance?
One woman at the center of that quest for the right balance between security and commercialization is Evi Papantoniou, Deputy Director for Space and Head of the European Commission’s Space Policy Unit.
He told the EU Space Forum 2022 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 new venture capital funds. Cassini of the EU to help entrepreneurs.
Papantoniou also provided some clues as to how the European Commission perceives the future of the secure connectivity constellation, a large-scale project to launch a fleet of non-hackable communications satellites announced in February by Commissioner Thierry Breton.
How the constellation is built, launched and operated will indicate a lot about the direction of European space policy in the long term.
The argument in favor of the constellation is that the EU does not have its own space-enabled network to share information away from prying eyes, so the “Union Secure Connectivity Program”, as it is called, aims to offer a service of quantum key encrypted messaging for European governments.
Subsequently, it will also offer commercial satellite Internet service for rural and poorly connected areas.
Papantonious said the project needed to have a spirit of “open strategic autonomy”, a new term that leaves plenty of room for interpretation and debate around the word “open”.
It is a concept that was discussed at the forum with several speakers convinced that the recent addition of “open” means that pragmatism has won over a tougher stance of requiring all satellites to be produced, launched and operated by European actors.
Europe already has its own high-precision navigation system, Galileo, and a unique Earth observation network in Copernicus. Both were created to evade dependence on American equivalents, which could be downgraded or blocked by the US government.
But the secure connectivity program is somewhat different, because the project comes at a time when private companies are already building and offering similar satellite broadband services such as Space X’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, or OneWeb, which is from owned by an Indian multinational, the UK government and the French Eutelsat.
With such a rich list of well-funded players in this market and limited potential for more than five or six constellations in orbit, many are wondering if the European Commission would do better to work with these companies and instead shift its focus to quality and security of end-user services that can be offered, rather than pursuing a single autonomous system.
Some established European space actors are absolutely against 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? I would be very uncomfortable if we weren’t independent.”
Another speaker echoed that sentiment.
Andre-Hubert Roussel, president of the Eurospace trade association, said that secure connectivity “must completely depend on European capabilities”.
Amazon representatives in Europe argue that it is not the owner of the system that matters, pointing to the multitude of ocean-going telecommunications cables connecting 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 broadband satellite equipment on the same spacecraft.
Do we have enough rockets?
Getting into space has never been easy and right now the availability of launchers is a serious bottleneck for Europe’s space ambitions.
The veteran Arianespace-operated Soyuz launcher from French Guiana is no longer available, as Russian partners have withdrawn from cooperation and the long-awaited new Ariane 6 launcher continues to experience delays. Scheduled for its first launch in 2020, the European Space Agency recently said it will not carry out its maiden launch until the fourth quarter of 2023.
Additionally, future Ariane 6 launch reservations by the likes of Amazon’s Kuiper project reduce the ability of other institutional and commercial spacecraft to enter orbit.
“It’s the next big problem we need to solve,” said a Commission insider.
Even the smallest Vega C launcher in Europe has its share of troubles. Its upper-stage engine is manufactured by Ukrainian company Yuzhmash, and although there is a willingness to continue working together, the situation is difficult, with only a handful of engines said to have remained in stock at the Vega C manufacturer. Avio in Italy.
Solutions are emerging. The rapidly growing Rocket Factory Augsburg is developing a small launcher for Earth observation satellites up to 1,300 kilograms and has recently signed deals with both the German space agency DLR and ESA.
However, it still has to fly not even once. More new European missile companies will arrive on the scene at the end of this decade, focused on the market of low earth orbit to orbit broadband orbit and spacecraft for Earth observation.
Keep the space clean
Although the launchers require urgent attention, many voices at the EU Space Forum 2022 have also called for swift and concerted action to better manage space traffic in lower orbits and to find effective, low-cost tools to reduce space debris.
Twenty years ago there were about 770 satellites in orbit, today there are about 5,000 and the figure could rise to 100,000 in the next few years if all projects are successful.
In the words of Inmarsat CEO Rajid Suri, it could suddenly seem “very, very busy”. If left unregulated, the debris from the orbit could render some areas of low Earth orbit unusable, he warned.
To echo that sense of urgency was Rodrigo da Costa, Executive Director of the European Union Agency for the Space Program (EUSPA), the body that oversees the operation of space programs such as Galileo.
He told the crowd that the management of European space traffic, including avoidance maneuvers and de-orbiting of obsolete satellites, was to be a priority from now on.
You can follow the EU Space Forum 2022 online here: https://euspaceforum.com. Euronews is media partner of the event.