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4th Feb 2023

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Europe to define new space ambitions at February summit

  • European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen and NASA's Kathleen Rubins on a field trip to the volcanic island of Lanzarote, in preparation for a moon landing (Photo: ESA/A.Romeo)
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Space is thought to be unlimited, but the lower Earth orbit (LEO) is limited - and filling quickly up with new satellites and space litter from old ones.

The lack of space has already put the two richest men on planet Earth, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, at odds.

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  • NASA's Rubins (r) could become the first female to set foot on the moon (Photo: ESA/A.Romeo)

Musk's Starlink has placed some 16,000 satellites in orbit to deliver high-speed internet to anyone on the planet.

Amazon's Bezos' competing project, Kuiper, hopes to have 3,200 satellites in operation after its first launch in 2022, while OneWeb is more than halfway to its target of 648 satellites.

A request from Musk, to move some of his Starlink satellites to a lower altitude than originally planned, recently led to a dispute at the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

This is perhaps the first, but certainly not the last, dispute over how to operate in space.

The American Federal Communications Commission earlier this month (3 November) granted aerospace giant Boeing permission to place 147 satellites in orbit, while French satellite company Kinéis was granted permission (18 November) to offer satellite services in the US market from 25 small, low-Earth orbit satellites.

There are two main reasons why the world is facing an exponential growth of satellites. First, it has never been easier to get a satellite into space and secondly, satellites have become smaller.

Commercial explosion

The global space economy represents more than €300bn per year, and could double within a decade, according to a report from the European Space Agency high-level advisory group on accelerating the use of space in Europe, published in October.

This commercial explosion touches on all sectors of space, from launchers to applications, from exploration to the LEO economy, it said. What will be Europe's share of it?

"Today, we have three nations [the US, China and Russia] being capable of launching their own astronauts into space, with one coming up very soon, India; and there will be others on the horizon," European Space Agency (ESA) director, Josef Aschbacher told a press conference in Portugal on Friday (19 November).

"The question is - does Europe also want to have its independent access to space for future space exploration? This means the next frontiers, which are of course in low-Earth orbit, but also on the Moon, on Mars and beyond," he said, at the end of a meeting of ESA member states ministers in the Portuguese city of Matosinhos.

The ministers adopted a new vision for space activity in Europe, the Matosinhos Manifesto.

A European space summit will be held in February 2022 in Toulouse, coinciding with France holding the Council of the European Union presidency from 1 January to 30 June 2022.

The summit is set to boost Europe's ambition in space for the next decade by announcing new flagship space programmes in addition to Copernicus and Galileo.

However, one big hurdle will be to find the public budgets needed to make such visions into reality.

"Human space exploration is well understood. The question is if Europe wants to develop its own capabilities in the medium to long term. I would like to ask the question to decision-makers. Is this something where Europe should really engage itself?" ESA director, Aschbacher said.

Astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts

It is one thing is to send communication, navigation and observation satellites into orbit. It is another thing is to send astronauts, as European and Americans call humans in space. Russians who travel into space are known as cosmonauts - while China calls them taikonauts.

Musk's SpaceX in September 2021 sent the first four civilians 580km above the surface of Earth, which is even further away than the International Space Station.

ESA has currently seven active astronauts working closely with the American NASA astronauts, as Europe is not capable of launching their own astronauts into space. ESA is, however, recruiting a new crew of astronauts for future missions.

"Space is becoming a much more important sphere – not just for humans but in all aspects of our lives; we see that through communication satellites, navigation satellites, earth observation satellites that really have become part of our infrastructure now. They are integrated into our modern societies," ESA astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, told EUobserver.

Mogensen and his NASA colleague, astronaut Kathleen Rubins last week (19 November) finished joint geology field trips to the Italian Dolomites and the Ries crater in Germany, as well Lanzarote, a Spanish volcanic island, in preparation for a potential landing on the Moon.

"Walking in a volcanic environment on the Earth, on the Moon surface or on Mars is actually very similar", Rubins explained to press on Lanzarote.

Time on the moon will be limited, as well as capacity, and astronauts need to know enough geology to understand what samples to pick, describe, measure and bring home.

"This is a very exciting time because it has been decided now to take the next step. We had more than 20 years of experience onboard the international space station where we learned what it means to live in space for longer periods of time. Six months – even a year. And now we are going to return to the Moon – hopefully this time to stay to create a presence on the Moon, a space station – and then the plan is if everything goes well to take that experience and then in 10, 20, 30 years send humans to Mars," Mogensen said.

"The NASA plan is that when we return to the moon it is going to be with the first woman and the first person of colour onboard. This is not only an American plan it is actually an international plan", Rubins said.

She stands a very good chance to become the first female to set foot on the moon herself.

"It has been interesting to see a lot of the commercial space explosion happening. We want to go further and we want to explore, but really to do that we need to enable a commercial market. My hope that this allows us to expand space exploration and that we make this is not just for a few single individuals but that more people can get involved", Rubins said.

"As costs get lower and lower the access becomes available to more countries that want to send experiments to space, educational opportunities – make space available to everybody. So, I see this as definitively 'collaboration'. It helps our space programme", she said.

EU space overlaps

The European Space Agency's headquarter is located in Paris, France. But it is not an EU institution, just working closely with the European Commission and members states and receiving some 25 percent of annual budgets from EU coffers.

There are around 2,200 staff working for ESA and the budget for 2021 is €6.49bn, which is only around a quarter of US public spending on space activities.

EU budgets are also directed at a new EU body called the EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) which was officially launched on 12 May 2021. It is based in Prague and oversights everything the European Union does as a bloc in orbit.

ESA and EUSPA are separate entities with national memberships that do not completely overlap - for example, the UK is in ESA but not in the EU, and therefore not in EUSPA.

A Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) defines responsibilities and details the amount of money contributed by the EU to ESA up to 2027 - some €9bn out of a total EU space budget of €14.88bn.

European states also invest in their own national space programmes and activities.

France committed for example in October 2021 €1.5bn to space as part of the "France 2030" investment plan, Norway announced it has secured funding to build a spaceport on the island of Andøya, and Sweden for a spaceport in the Esrange Space Centre in Kiruna.

Scotland's government recently launched a new Scottish Space Strategy and even little Monaco established an Office for Outer Space Affairs.

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