Europe is being cautioned not to overlook the opportunities in the developing space industry, as over 20 countries convene in Spain. Their discussions are expected to revolve around financing for the postponed Ariane 6 rocket, addressing climate change, and exploring potential new roles in space exploration.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is conducting ministerial meetings in Seville, with subsequent collaborative sessions alongside the European Union, focusing on enhancing competitiveness in space. These discussions are largely influenced by the substantial expansion of SpaceX, a space enterprise based in the United States and spearheaded by Elon Musk, which is swiftly gaining prominence.
The “Space Summit,” spanning two days, is being held against the backdrop of Europe encountering a challenge in achieving independent space access. This is a result of setbacks in the launch of the new Ariane 6 rocket, the grounding of the smaller Vega-C rocket, and a loss of access to Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft due to the conflict in Ukraine.
During the summit, ministers will aim to address disagreements among prominent space nations such as France, Germany, and Italy regarding launcher policies, particularly focusing on securing medium-term funding for Ariane 6. The launch of Ariane 6, initially scheduled for 2020, has been delayed until 2024, causing a four-year deviation from the original plan.
France, the home of ArianeGroup, is seeking additional funding to cover cost overruns, according to sources within the industry. A recent report in the French business newspaper La Tribune estimated the deficit at 350 million euros.
On the other hand, Germany, which is sometimes viewed as hesitant to financially support the French industry, aims to boost its own developing autonomous launch sector. Meanwhile, Italy is focused on safeguarding its Vega-C project and advancing exploration programs.
Sources indicated last week that there was some headway in resolving a three-way standoff among Europe’s leading launch nations. However, ministers are still anticipated to engage in sensitive budget discussions.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher refrained from commenting on the talks ahead of the Seville meeting but emphasized the importance of not repeating past technology sector mistakes. He stressed that the space economy is expanding and that Europe should not miss out on this opportunity, describing it as strategically challenging to justify non-participation.
He pointed out that two decades ago, Europe was not far behind the United States or Japan in terms of patents and intellectual capabilities. However, today, the major IT companies are not based in Europe; some are in the United States, and some are in China. Aschbacher expressed concern that Europe had missed out on key technological advancements, such as quantum technology, where they are now playing catch-up.
While Europe has established a prominent role in climate observation, navigation, and space science, it has not pursued a primary role in human exploration. Instead, it has taken on a secondary role in projects led by the U.S. space agency NASA or, until recently, Russia.
Ministers are expected to deliberate on an ESA proposal to involve private funding for a potential new spaceplane designed for transporting cargo to and from future space stations. This project may eventually be adapted for human spaceflight.
The proposal bears resemblance to the Hermes spaceplane, which remained a concept and was never realized. Designed as Europe’s response to the U.S. Space Shuttle, Hermes was intended to carry three astronauts but was scrapped in 1992.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; edited by Robert Birsel)