Europe’s space sector aims to boost commercialization

** As European space leaders meet practically in Brussels on the new European Space ForumEuronews explores how the sector is making a big push to become more business-oriented. **

“Supporting start-ups is a huge priority” for the European Space Agency (ESA), according to its CEO Josef Aschbacher, as the agency seeks to compete in an increasingly crowded and dynamic sector in which Europe is accused of falling behind.

Speaking to Euronews, Aschbacher described how the ESA created a new office for commercialization, industrial policy and procurement, led by space strategist Geraldine Naja.

The goal is to make Europe fertile ground for so-called New Space operators, a catch-all for companies that take advantage of existing and new space technologies to build fully commercial businesses.

There is no time to waste for Aschbacher as he sees the commercial space sector in the United States leading the charge in launch services as well as in areas traditionally strong in Europe such as Earth observation.

He says his tenure’s priority is to “encourage people to take more risks, deliver projects faster and help them both through faster action on the side of ESA.”

While the space sector welcomes the move, Olivier Lemaitre, secretary general of industry organization ASD-Eurospace, warns that we won’t see a “European SpaceX” anytime soon.

Space budgets in Europe are fragmented by country and six times smaller than in the US, he told Euronews. “Some in power are forgetting this reality, thinking that we can do what the US can do with six times less money,” he says.

Messages of support from ESA come as the European Commission’s own space operation, called the European Union Space Program Agency, begins to spread its wings.

The newly created EUSPA is tasked with maximizing the benefits of European Commission-funded space projects such as the Galileo navigation system, the Copernicus Earth observation network and the EGNOS positioning and navigation tool.

The two organizations, ESA and EUSPA, say they are focused on encouraging a “globally competitive” European space sector. This begs the question – do we really need both of these in parallel?

“That’s a good question,” Aschbacher replies, “but today they certainly work in a very complex and complementary way.” He emphasizes that ESA’s role is to develop the technical side of new satellite technologies and launch vehicles, while the European Commission has the political clout to get major projects like Galileo off the ground.

However, it remains an open question whether Europe, with the help of ESA and EUSPA, can create an innovative and flexible environment that can facilitate the emergence of new large commercial players.

What’s in store for Copercia in the future?

Another key topic for discussion at the European Space Forum will be the future of Copernicus. Copernicus, founded in 2014, provides Europe with continuous, independent and reliable access to data and information from Earth observation satellites.

Simonetta Celi, soon to be ESA’s Director of Earth Observations, praises this constellation of satellites, telling Euronews: “We have eight satellites working flawlessly, we have 400,000 registered users and 250 terabytes of data are downloaded every day.”

However, she admits that the program is facing funding difficulties as a result of Brexit-related “high-level political considerations” (the UK is an active member of the ESA but is no longer in the EU), with a funding gap of €750 million that she is confident , will soon be overcome. Lemaitre from ASD-Eurospace also believes that the funding problem can be solved. “We need to see goodwill on both sides, and if we give each other enough time, then this can move forward,” he says.

Looking ahead, Cheli explains that the Copernicus program will focus on issues such as monitoring the Arctic and observing CO2 emissions, which are critical in the post-COP26 political environment.

However, private companies compete with Copernicus for high-resolution Earth imaging, and Cheli says current thinking at ESA suggests that finding ways to integrate these commercial initiatives into Copernicus systems in a win-win manner is one of the preferred paths forward.

Lemaitre again notes a trend of over-exploiting the business potential of Copernicus, which he says was originally designed to provide high-quality data to government agencies and academic institutions.

He believes that there is great economic potential in the field of Earth observation, but there are barriers to data access, and there is a need for powerful artificial intelligence and high-performance computing technologies to make the best use of the information collected by the fleet of Copernicus Sentinel satellites.