To dream of the future, Europe must invest much more today

Tropical cyclone Flamboyan, southern Indian ocean, 30 April 2018: composite image of infrared data from geostationary satellites of EUMETSAT, JMA and NOAA, overlaying a computer-generated model of the Earth, containing NASA’s Blue Marble Next Generation imagery (EUMETSAT)

23 July 2018

As European space sector leaders gathered in Baveno on the shore of Italy’s Lake Maggiore to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the so-called Baveno Manifesto, which initiated work to realise the comprehensive Earth observation programme now known as Copernicus, one subject came up repeatedly when talk turned to the future. That is the so-called “new space” economy, in which quick, nimble private sector players are supposed to take over from traditional, pondering, bureaucratic government agencies to quickly and cost-efficiently deliver high-performing, imaginative space missions. The implication is that Europe – because it lacks a counterpart to high-profile companies like SpaceX – does not do “new space”.

The fact that the topic was raised frequently by those who would defend Europe’s record – such as the European Commission, which is ultimately responsible for Copernicus and the Galileo navigation programme, and the European Space Agency, which is the Commission’s principle mechanism for realising these capabilities – certainly suggests that new space is at very least a topic they have come to expect to be called on to address. Not heard at Baveno was one oft-cited explanation for the at-least-apparent lack of a European new space economy, which is the fact that the European institutional market for launches – the most publicly-visible aspect of space – is small. Investors in a European company attempting to do what, say, SpaceX does would not proceed with the confidence of knowing there is a large domestic market for its services.

But the point that was raised frequently at Baveno was that it is also a misconception that private sector players in the US are reliant exclusively or even principally on private investment. Whether through NASA or other US government agencies, private sector suppliers are working in a market flush with public money – that is, they are innovating on the financial wave of an outsourcing boom.

From that perspective, there is a strong argument for Europe to spend more, perhaps much more, money on space through ESA, weather service EUMETSAT (another key enabler of Copernicus) or other public entities. This argument was eloquently expressed by EUMETSAT director general Alain Ratier in an address to the Baveno congress. Ratier warned that to ensure Copernicus can meet its increasingly ambitious objectives of delivering the observations needed to understand the causes and effects of weather and a changing climate and environment, Europe must prepare for a long-term future.

That means developing better, more efficient instrument technologies, said Ratier: “We need to demonstate new capabilities as our compeitirs do in the US and China. Take a look at their programmes. There is not much publicity, but they are developing, testing new instruments.

“Because this is a necessity – a story outside Copernicus – to increase EO capabilities of the most demanding Copernicus applications. And, in the context of new space don’t forget that performance, accuracy, availability are drivers. But also, to do more with limited resources is the future.

“So, new space certainly brings new concepts and business models but it is not a panacea. There must be a foundation for the upstream development and demonstration of the smart system technologies and missions. There must be some investment in what is adventurous and risky, and the public sector has its role to play.

“This is a necessity for creating new opportunities [for public sector missions like the Copernicus Sentinels] and also for new space. And, this has always been one of the key roles of space agencies.

“And [agencies’] role in the new space era is undisputed. If you look where the roots of the technology for instruments lays in new space, it very often lays in NASA. We shall not be blind, we shall not assume that new space and the private sector will do all the innovation. It is not so, it cannot be true for economic reasons.

“So, we have cubesats, and I think that cubesats can be used to demonstrate fast, frequent and inexpensive new technology in orbit. So my message is that Europe through ESA, the EU, national space agencies and industry needs to mobilise its R&D resources in the most effficient manner. We know very well that we invest less than on the other side of the Atlantic and I can tell you from my recent visit to China it is the same in China for sure, though it is not measurable in the same manner for obvious reasons.

“So this is essential to our future and this is essential for new dreams to come true in the future.”