The future of Europe in space

In a meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology on 15 September 2021, the Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), Josef Aschbacher, set out his vision for the future direction of ESA and European space policy.

In his introduction, the Director- General recalled that the UK is an important member of ESA, with many strengths – on the science side, the engineering side and the project management side. ESA needs this excellence, he said. He added that ESA in turn can provide an avenue for the UK to implement its national priorities. ESA is also a gateway to the wider world because it is probably the space agency with most interactions, through projects and programmes, with other nations.

ESA is active across all aspects of space. That, he said, is unusual: many space agencies are not. It has programmes in space science, human and robotic exploration, navigation, Earth observation, telecommunications, safety and security. It is also engaged on operational programmes, such as the development of launchers. This is, he said, unique and very useful for the achievement of member state priorities.

The overall budget for ESA is around €6.5 billion, 24% of it is coming from the European Commission and the rest from member countries (the UK contributes 9.2% of the total). One of its principles is that almost all the money should go back to the supply chain and research institutions in the member states. That means the majority of the money goes back to the countries to build up programmes and activities in cooperation with other countries and other industries.

Among recent successful projects is the Solar Orbiter. It was launched in 2020, with strong UK participation and leadership. It is one of the most complex satellites exploring the sun, flying closer to it than any previous mission, in order to understand the dynamics and properties of our star. The Plato (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) mission will be launched in 2026, looking at habitable planets in the universe, planets that have similar conditions to the Earth’s – the so-called Goldilocks zone – where there is appropriate temperature variation, light levels that are favourable to life, and other characteristics which may exist in other solar systems.

Agenda 2025

He spoke about Agenda 20251 which outlines ESA priorities for the next few years. The starting point is that, in matters concerning space, it is important to take a long-term view. Space developments are not delivered in one year or the next. So what is the world likely to look like in, say, 2035? In the Director-General’s view, space is one of the tools that will get us there. The Agenda sets out some of the immediate steps necessary in order to get there. Five priorities with targets for 2025 are listed: commercialisation; safety and security; programme challenges; ESA transformation; and ESA-US relations.

He recalled that there is a great deal of media coverage of space, but much of it emanates from the USA or China and not from Europe. And that, he said, bothered him. The reason is that space in these countries is developing very quickly, because of investment from both the private sector and also the government side: huge investments are being made to support space programmes. Individuals like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are putting money into space, as are many Silicon Valley companies.

China is rapidly building a space capability, at the same level as the one in Europe, while the USA has capabilities that exceed those of Europe.

Enabling our society

Space is used in many aspects of daily life: Earth observation, telecommunications, weather forecasts and navigation, for example. Without space-based technologies, modern life would not be possible. Space is an integral part of daily life for every single person in the UK and many other parts of the world, he stated.

The commercialisation of space is under way. Responding and participating effectively means being able to act at speed. Access to capital is also needed to make things happen. Talent, people with brilliant ideas who are driven by those ideas and full of energy are another vital factor.

Satellites can also provide enormous amounts of data information in a timely manner both to understand what is occurring with climate change, but also to check how the world is responding. Radar satellites look through the clouds and therefore take images whenever they fly over a region. This is especially important in the case of flooding where the associated bad weather will often result in dense cloud cover. Information on flooding is then immediately available in case of crisis.

There is a rapid response system, with satellites on one side and a telecommunications network on the other, with computation done partially in space. This aids the emergency services, the fire brigades in the case of forest fires, or environmental protection agencies in case of floods, people who need the information very quickly.

Another of the Agenda 2025 priorities focusses on safety and security, specifically safety in space in the context of the dangers of space debris. Satellites are an essential part of society and need to be protected. Knowing the location of space debris enables operators to manoeuvre to avoid collisions. Mr Aschbacher suggested that Europe needs to strengthen its capabilities in this area. So this will be a focus for the next couple of years.

Space weather is another area of interest. Bursts of solar wind can impact power grids, communications networks and infrastructure, causing huge damage. It is estimated that a single event could cause economic damage in Europe in the order of €15 billion. While these are not common, they do happen and ESA is building a satellite which will give some warning when they do occur, in order to give some time to take precautionary action and protect infrastructure on the ground.

Launched in 2020, the Solar Orbiter has flown closer to the sun than any previous mission.

In response

Responding, Dr Alice Bunn, Chief Executive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, discussed how the UK might benefit from its membership of ESA. She highlighted the large-scale science and exploration infrastructure. Those huge programmes take many years to come to fruition – she cited the James Webb Space Telescope which was 25 years in the making. It makes sense, she said, to pool our expertise and our funding in order to cover the costs of these huge missions. The second area was civil operational capability. As a nation, the UK has historically under-invested in national capability. Instead, we have participated in EU space programmes. Membership of ESA can prove to be a very useful delivery path to help tip the balance and bring up UK national capability.

Sir Martin Sweeting, Group Executive Chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology, highlighted two particular areas that came out of Director Aschbacher’s talk. The first was the Lunar Pathfinder project. Not only is it an interesting technological challenge to undertake in the so-called ‘new space environment’, but it represents a departure from the way ESA has done business in the past. Here, ESA is setting the requirements and then leaving industry to deliver it. He argued that this was a really important step – one that might not be noticed by many – because in the past, there had been a tendency for ESA to set the challenge and then tell industry how to do it. He saw the balance shifting and this would help ESA and Europe to move more rapidly. He argued that, with the advent of the private sector in space, the tempo has increased dramatically. The private sector is moving out from applications into exploration.

In terms of international collaboration, he noted that Europe is positioned physically between the USA and the East. Each has its own particular vision of how it wants to progress in space. India is an emerging player in space and there are others. He believed that Europe should therefore engage very closely, very positively with these other players because it will benefit from collaborative projects beyond its own individual means.

Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, stressed that space is a team effort. He said that it takes a team to achieve the steps we have made as a country and as a world. While member states are looking at the ESA’s Agenda 2025, they will each have their own priorities too. The UK’s National Space Strategy2 sets out the Government’s ambitions for the UK in space, bringing together civil and defence policy for the first time. This needs to be communicated clearly to other partners.

Communicating value

He added that the UK Space Agency needs to think like any organisation does, identifying and articulating clearly the value that it brings. He noted the need to engage with academia, international stakeholders, industry and Whitehall to make sure the organisation is doing the right things, particularly as the agenda changes in light of the strategy and the world changes as commercialisation of space gathers pace.