“We’re an autonomous space power. And we’re not only going to stay that way, but we’re going to accelerate,” Thierry Breton, the European Internal Market Commissioner in charge of space, said in an interview with the Reuters news agency. He added: “What is very important is that everyone is aware that we have all the technologies and expertise in Europe to do so.” Faced with the rise in recent years of China’s space program and the prowess of space company SpaceX, the former boss of technology group Atos said the European Union (EU) will boost its investments in three key areas: launchers, satellite communications (Galileo) and space exploration.
“SpaceX has redefined the standards of launchers, and that’s why Ariane 6 is a necessary step, it’s not an end in itself: we must now think about Ariane 7 and the technological breakthroughs to be made,” said Thierry Breton. By “technological breakthroughs”, the European Commissioner was referring to the reusability of launchers, since it is with this major economic argument that the American space company founded by Elon Musk has broken the prices of the launch market with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket. But its prowess doesn’t stop there: on May 30, nasa allowed NASA to send two of its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Crew Dragon capsule. A first for NASA and the United States since the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, which forced the first space power to depend on the only means of transporting astronauts then functional, the Russian Soyuz.
As for China, it has great ambitions in space. In January 2019, the Asian giant managed to land on the far side of the Moon, a world first in the history of space exploration. More recently, on June 23, 2020, finalizing its own Beidou GPS system, putting its 30th satellite into orbit using the Long-March 3 launcher.
To do this, Europe will sign a 1 billion euro contract with Arianespace, including guaranteed orders. The EU has asked Arianespace to do more in terms of innovation. In a February 2019 report, the Court of Auditors identified three challenges for the future of the European Ariane 6 launcher, including that it remains competitive against SpaceX’s Falcon 9:
- Ariane 6 must evolve towards renewables like SpaceX’s Falcon 9,
- Ariane 6 must find alternatives to balance subsidies,
- intra-European competition between the Ariane 6 and Vega launchers will have to be limited.
In addition, Thierry Breton stressed the need to accelerate on the Galileo programme, the European satellite navigation system, synonymous with European space sovereignty. “I have decided to accelerate the implementation of the second-generation satellites ,300 and the most modern in the world,” he said. Their deployment is finally expected to take place at the end of 2024, instead of 2027 as originally planned.
Proposal for a budget of 16 billion euros for space
To speed up European space programmes, Thierry Breton hopes that the 27, who are negotiating the next European budget, will support the European Commission’s proposal for a space budget of 16 billion euros. Last year, a record budget of 14.4 billion euros was allocated to the European Space Agency (ESA). “We are very close to the initial budget that was presented by the previous committee. We still have a little effort to make, but we are working on it and I very much hope that we will get there,” Thierry Breton told Reuters.
The European Commissioner also proposed the creation of a 1 billion euro European Space Fund to invest quickly in startups in the sector, as well as a European space incubator coordinating all existing efforts. In his interview with Reuters, he also suggested the creation of a program that would boost innovations: among other things, it would allow startups free access, following competition, to satellites and launchers to test their technologies in orbit.