Skip to content

Bringing space down to earth

The contribution the space industry makes to our daily lives is far more significant, and tangible, than merely providing us with a better understanding of the universe – important as that is.

The contribution the space industry makes to our daily lives is far
more significant, and tangible, than merely providing us with a better
understanding of the universe – important as that is. The sector
plays a crucial role in ensuring Europe has a high level of
technological and industrial capability and makes its presence felt in
areas as varied as environment, transport, communications, humanitarian
aid and financial markets. If the EU does not wish to become dependent
on others, notably the US, in this area, it must develop a truly
European Space Policy.
The Commission and the European Space Agency,
working together, have shown how this could be achieved and EU
governments have recently given their political support to the strategy.
Space is synonymous with innovation, exploration and new
frontiers. It has a capacity to stretch imagination and understanding.
The sector also has a strategic importance of its own, helping to fuel
research and industrial competitiveness and bringing concrete benefits
to millions.
EU governments have now formally recognised the powerful
contribution it makes to two of the Union’s main internal goals:
ensuring Europe’s independence, security and prosperity and boosting
economic growth and employment. It also impacts on external challenges
by providing vital information on critical global issues such as
climate change and humanitarian assistance.
At their fourth meeting on 22 May, EU space ministers unanimously
endorsed the paper the European Commission and European Space Agency
(ESA), who have been cooperating increasingly closely since 2004, had
jointly drafted. This analyses the key challenges facing the European
space sector and offers ways these could be addressed.
The policy is designed to increase transparency and to help the
major players in the sector – the EU, the ESA, national authorities and
European intergovernmental organisations – to work together more
effectively, reduce duplication, achieve synergies and create a
coordinated European space effort that meets user and national needs.
Space is a high risk, high innovation sector requiring sustained
technological investment where the timeline between concept validation
and orbit can be ten years or more. Given the fragmentation in European
supply and demand for space systems, largely to meet security and
defence requirements, any moves to ensure interoperability and
coherence can only be beneficial.
The programme covers major space applications: satellite
navigation, earth observation, satellite communications and also
security and defence, science and technology, industrial policy,
governance, exploration of the solar system and access to space. On the
basis of wide-ranging consultation, it sets out a framework for future
developments, but does not contain specific expenditure or regulatory
When presenting the policy, Günter Verheugen, the Enterprise and
Industry Commissioner, emphasised the importance of Europe playing a
major, independent role in space policy, especially as new challengers
in the shape of China and India appear on the scene.
“This is an important milestone for further development of
space policy in Europe. I am convinced that Europe needs to remain
present in the area of space if it does not want to become an
irrelevant space power,”
he said.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, the ESA’s director-general, noted that the new strategy brought “a new European dimension to space and a space dimension to Europe”. He pointed out that “there are no citizens left who do not depend on the space sector, even if they are not aware of it”. However, he suggested jokingly, they would become fully aware if all satellites were switched off for just one hour.
Reaping the benefits
Finding ways to derive the widest possible use from technological
breakthroughs in the space sector will ensure that investment enjoys
the maximum economic, political and social returns. The EU is already
leading the way in key areas.
Perhaps the best known joint European programme is Galileo, the
global navigation infrastructure system that will use 30 satellites to
provide accurate timing and positioning services worldwide.
The system will provide information that will be a major benefit
to a host of sectors. Transport, rescue and communications will be
heavy users. But it can also be applied for other purposes: land
survey, agriculture, scientific research, tourism, energy distribution
networks and banking systems.
Galileo should be fully operational by the end of 2012. After the
recent failure of a public/private partnership to agree all the
financial aspects of the initiative, the Commission has proposed an
alternative route for the EU to reach its goal. It has advised that the
public sector should finance the initial infrastructure and that the
system should be operated by a private concession holder. The proposal
is being considered by national governments.
Monitoring the pulse of the planet
Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) is another
major EU initiative. This uses data from satellites in space and
measuring instruments in the air, on the ground, the sea or deep under
water to provide information services on environment and security.
With the increase in natural and manmade catastrophes, there is a
growing need for this form of monitoring exercise. It can detect
dangerous gases and substances in the air, follow the evolution of land
cover, assess the state of the sea and identify small movements of the
earth’s crust.
The inputs are analysed and provide valuable information that can
help EU, national, regional and local authorities address a range of
environmental and other challenges and assess policy implementation.
For instance, the system can be used to steer fishermen to their
optimal catch and to track vessels fishing illegally. It can give
farmers information to maximise their crop yield and offer accurate
monitoring to discourage fraud. Other services will help civil
protection forces to prepare for, and respond, to major disasters
ranging from floods and forest fires to earthquakes.
It is not just decision-makers, scientists and organisations that reap
dividends from GMES in order to improve policy planning. Ordinary
citizens will also benefit as GMES services provide information
affecting their daily lives, whether it be city mapping or details of
air quality and ultraviolet intensity.
Both the Commission and the ESA are closely involved in the
initiative. The former is in charge of identifying user needs and
develops the services, while the latter manages the implementation of
the space segment. Unlike Galileo, the infrastructure used by GMES
largely already exists (satellites and ground-based instruments
developed by ESA or Member States) and the challenge will be to make
the best use of these European and national resources. Further
investments will be destined to bridge technological and operational
gaps. For the system to become fully operational, it will be necessary
to ensure the long-term viability of services provision and of the
supporting observation infrastructure.
Success in orbit
Europe is also well placed in Satellite Communication Systems. It
is home to three of the five largest operators in the world. These
provide global telecommunications, television broadcasting, data and
mobile services.
The satellite systems distribute over 3,000 television channels
and are an essential complement to basic microwave and cable public
telephony and data networks. They play an invaluable role when land
networks are put out of action by natural disasters such as floods and
help armed forces deployed on humanitarian or peace-keeping missions.
European firms are well represented in the manufacture and
servicing of satellites and their launcher rockets – Ariane Espace is
the world’s number one launcher – and the EU operates the world’s
largest environmental space programme. Satellites can also be used to
bring educational facilities to remote regions and to expand medical
support in developing countries.
Space policy in figures
Europe’s expenditure in 2006 on civil space programmes (about €
5.5 billion) was less than a third of that in the US ($ 17.3 billion)
in a global market that is worth € 90 billion and growing 7% per year.
The US invests as much as the rest of the world put together in civil
space and its expenditure on defence space is even higher.
The sector is a significant source of European employment –
providing 28,000 jobs – and, despite the relative low investment in
space, the industry is highly competitive. It holds 40% of the world
market for manufacturing, launching and servicing satellites – a market
that is estimated to reach € 400 billion by 2025.
Looking to the future
EU governments have now asked the Commission and the ESA to
propose an implementation plan for space policy and to carry out
regular monitoring and priority setting and to present a revised space
strategy to ministers at their fifth meeting next year.
On the practical side, this will examine the financing of space
projects, using as a starting point the € 1,430 billion already
available in the 7th Programme of Research and Technology Development
between 2007 and 2013, and exploring further mechanisms; identifying
final users of GMES services and defining the conditions under which
national satellites and data will be available to GMES. These aspects
will be addressed by the Commission after full consultation with Member
States and ESA.
Thought will also be given to measures to encourage technological
innovation, to new financing schemes such as public/private
partnerships, to ways to help small and medium-sized companies make
their contribution to the sector and to potential synergies between
civilian and military use.
Attention is also being given to the international aspects of
space policy. This ranges from improving access for European suppliers
to third country markets and looking for international partners for
European programmes to making full use of space systems to support
developing countries, especially in Africa.
Aim of the EU/ESA cooperation agreement.
“The coherent and progressive development of an overall European Space
Policy…to link demand for services and applications using space systems
in support of the Community policies with the supply of space systems
and infrastructure necessary to meet that demand.”