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Op’ed: Space in Europe: we are living in exciting times!

Press briefing on Ministerial Council; Copyright: ESA
Press briefing on Ministerial Council; Copyright: ESA

Europe is about to make key decisions that will affect its place in space for the coming years. Through its flagship projects, both current and future, it will strive to ensure that it remains a strong and influential player. Vera Pinto Gomes, Policy Analyst at the EU Satellite Navigation Programme, gives her take on Europe’s future direction in space.

Europe is going through a set of strategic space milestones that will shape the future of Space in Europe for the coming years. The dynamic atmosphere that space in Europe is currently experiencing promises to engage all stakeholders towards a common goal: to make Europe a stronger leader in space. Technology is being developed, flagship projects are starting to deliver services and European citizens are being more and more involved in space decisions.  This last quarter of 2016 promises to be a productive time that will shape space in Europe for the years to come. Let’s look at them in more detail.

Space strategy adoption (October)

With the launch of the European Union Space Strategy on the 26 October 2016, an important step towards Europe’s space future was made. This document sets out the European Union vision for its space activities and assumes space as a strategic domain for Europe.

In this document, the European Union presents its  priorities: maximising the benefits of space for European citizens; ensuring Europe remains a global space leader; reinforcing Europe’s autonomy in access to space and space as a secure and safe environment and ensuring the European space sector remains competitive and innovative. (Full document available here: ).

The EU Space Strategy, prepared over the last 12 months, brings clarity to future European space priorities and a roadmap to follow. The preparation of this document brought together stakeholders to participate and agree on a common vision and goals. A public consultation was also made to give all EU citizens the opportunity to participate in this strategic document.

The timing of this document is also important. The last space communication from the European Commission is dated from 2010. Space reality has suffer great changes since then and there was the need to update European political space priorities. Also, the European Commission is itself preparing itself to start, under the European Union procedures, the discussions for the next Multi Financial Framework (where the budget available after 2020 will be established for the EU future work programmes). The EU Space Strategy will, for sure, contribute with clarity on the space budget priorities after 2020.

The implementation of the actions proposed under the EU Space Strategy will start immediately. The European Commission’s Work Programme 2017 includes the start of EU Space Strategy implementation as a priority and a change on the EU space policy mind-set: from investing to reaping benefits, as the major European Union space infrastructure (Galileo & Copernicus) starts now to offer services.

Together with the EU Space Strategy, the European Union signed a ‘Joint Statement on Shared Vision and Goals for the Future of European Space’ with ESA. The Joint Statement EU-ESA, now signed, is an important step for both institutions to work in the same direction (and maybe towards the United Space in Europe that the ESA Director General has been promoting). The European Union and European Space Agency are two different institutions with their own procedures, that have been trying to work together for the last few decades. Their relationship has not always been easy in the past, and might face more challenges in the future. However, this first step is quite impressive in establishing a common vision for what should be space in Europe. The European space landscape can sometimes be confusing for an outsider on European space affairs. This Joint Statement and the work that will follow after its signature, will definitely bring more clarity and open a new chapter on European Space Policy and on the European Union – ESA relationship.

Illustration of an Ariane 5 ES with four Galileo satelites; Copyrights: ESA
Illustration of an Ariane 5 ES with four Galileo satelites; Copyrights: ESA

Galileo Ariane 5 launch (November) & Galileo Initial Services (December)

The Galileo implementation schedule is catching up from its implementation delays. After six satellites launched last year, the European Union is committed to achieving the same in 2016. On 17 November, four Galileo satellites will be launched from Kourou on board a modified Ariane-5. This is the first time four navigation satellites will be launched at once and will signify a big step forward on the refurbishment of the Galileo constellation towards its Full Operation Capability (FOC) expected by 2020. This also means, that the European Union can rely on another launcher besides the Russian Soyuz and will be able to ensure Galileo will be on track for its deployment schedule.

Another important milestone for the European Satellite Navigation programme is the declaration of Initial Services expected to occur before the end of the year. Although the performances are not yet the ones promised by Galileo at its FOC, it will allow industry and users to benefit from the European satellite navigation system with already good performances (considering the infrastructure available). The Galileo user will be able to use the Initial Services together with GPS signals allowing them to have use their satellite navigation applications with success. The Initial Services milestone takes gains even more significance, considering that in January 2017 Galileo will start its exploitation phase.

ESA citizens debate (September)

On 10 September 2016, the European Space Agency organised, for the first time in space history, a debate involving 1600 citizens from 22 countries in Europe to discuss the future of space in Europe. Never before such a close dialogue with citizens was put into place. This type of approach shows the different mind-set that Jan Woerner, the current Director General of ESA, wants to impose in European space affairs: promote dialogue and get space closer to citizens by involving them on the decision making process. The results per country are already available on event website ( and a report integrating the sum of the results is expected. Going through the results, it is possible to assess the perception and knowledge European citizens have on space activities, institutions and landscape, not only European but also in the worldwide context. This event was an important first step towards a closer dialogue. However, if the aim is to be more inclusive, events of this nature should occur on a regular basis. It is also important to elaborate on strategies that involve citizens who do not have a particular interest in space activities and for that reason do not follow them on a regular basis. Space communication and awareness has here a key role. And yet, the challenge remains: how to reach common citizens that have no particular interest in space activities?

The Moon Village can bring a partial answer to the challenge. At the International Astronautical Congress 2015, Jan Woerner presented the Moon Village concept: an international cooperation project to ensure human presence and space research in the Moon. Since then, the Moon Village is bringing together academics, researchers, start-ups, space professionals and space enthusiasts geared up to discuss how to implement such a project. In the Moon Village, the supporter community sees  a project to ensure international space cooperation and guarantee human presence in space after the end of the International Space Station.  If the Moon Village becomes a reality, raising the awareness of common citizens about space activities and benefits will be an easier task and might have the same effect as the Apollo mission in inspiring generations to come.

Exomars orbiter; Copyright: ESA
Exomars orbiter; Copyright: ESA

ESA Exo Mars mission (October)

Beginning in October 2016, the Russian-European mission ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter successfully entered Mars orbit. This mission was significant both for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, showing also that space cooperation is a strong way of going further that each player’s individual space capabilities. The Trace Gas Orbiter piggybacked a landing module named Schiaparelli, but the landing didn’t go as expected.

Although the unexpected landing of Schiaparelli, the Exo Mars mission can still be considered a success. According to the official description by ESA, Schiaparelli was stated to be an “entry, descent and landing demonstration module.” It stated that “the preparation for this mission enhances Europe’s expertise and enables the testing of key technologies which could be used in subsequent missions to Mars.” This ensures that main goal that was achieved: develop key technologies, fine-tune them and use them in future missions.

ESA Ministerial Council (December)

On 1 and 2 December 2016 the ESA ministerial council meeting will take place. During this meeting the optional ESA-programmes for the coming years and the contributions of the ESA member states for these programs will be determined. Member states base their contribution on the expertise present in their country. The ESA Director General highlighted, in a press conference last Monday, some of the topics that will be in discussion: the European participation in the International Space Station, building a second Orion service module and accessing more funding for the ExoMars programme. In total, ESA will request its member states to commit with a 11B€ multiannual budget.

It will be interesting to follow how ESA member states will position themselves in accordance with the strategic goals for the agency considering the recently Joint Statement signed with the EU, but also recent politicical events at national level, e.g. how the Brexit and the fall of British pound will impact on UK position during the discussions. Other topic of interest will be the positioning of the European Space Agency towards the Moon Village (will it change from an enabler to a project manager?) and Mars exploration plans.

Credits: Vera Pinto
Credits: Vera Pinto Gomes

Disclaimer: Vera Pinto Gomes is a space policy analyst currently working at the European Satellite Navigation Programs (Galileo & EGNOS). She is also a member of the History Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics and keeps a Portuguese blog on space policy. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

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