π Space
Conquering Mars: realistic venture or a fantasy?

Europe’s role in the new space economy

Sophy Caulier, Independant journalist
On September 8th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Stefaan de Mey
Stefaan de Mey
Senior Strategy officer for Human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA)
Key takeaways
  • Today, activities in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) are 90% commercial and 10% institutional.
  • It is now a question of integrating the Moon and manned flights into this economy, which is starting with space tourism.
  • According to the Bank of America, the economic weight of the sector should increase from $350bn in 2016 to $1tn in 2040.
  • Europe has basic infrastructure for scientific experimentation in space, but it is not fully utilised.
  • This is a new market in which ESA wants to be present by offering commercial services in low-Earth orbit and preparing others for the “future lunar economy”.

When we talk about com­mer­cial space ser­vices, what are we refer­ring to?

Ste­faan De Mey.  Today, space – or rather LEO (Low Earth Orbit) – is 90% com­mer­cial and 10% insti­tu­tion­al. The com­mer­cial part includes every­thing that con­cerns telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, nav­i­ga­tion, broad­cast­ing, and their appli­ca­tions. Beyond that there are also insti­tu­tions who fund infra­struc­ture and satel­lite con­stel­la­tions. For exam­ple, the US Depart­ment of Defense has fund­ed the GPS and the Euro­pean Union fund­ed the Galileo nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem and Earth obser­va­tion satel­lites known as Coper­ni­cus. Even though they are gov­ern­ment-fund­ed, these infra­struc­tures are used for com­mer­cial appli­ca­tions. As such, they rep­re­sent a large vol­ume of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty – an exten­sion of the ter­res­tri­al econ­o­my in space, with com­mer­cial appli­ca­tions on the ground.

We are now at the stage of inte­grat­ing the Moon and human space­flight into that econ­o­my – some­thing which is start­ing to hap­pen with the arrival of space tourism. At ESA, we also want sci­ence and research to be part of this econ­o­my, con­sid­er­ing that space pro­vides an envi­ron­ment for sci­en­tif­ic work. Micro­grav­i­ty makes it pos­si­ble to pro­duce things in space not pos­si­ble on Earth, such as cer­tain types of crys­tals, spe­cial mate­ri­als, or arti­fi­cial organs. The antivi­ral Remde­sivir, for instance, was test­ed in an “ICE Cube” (Inter­na­tion­al Com­mer­cial Exper­i­ments), a sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment con­tained in a 10-cen­time­tre cube sent on board the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS).

Are large explo­ration infra­struc­tures still fund­ed by insti­tu­tions and agencies?

This sit­u­a­tion is chang­ing. Over the past 20 years, gov­ern­ments have invest­ed heav­i­ly in the ISS. But now the pri­vate sec­tor is tak­ing over. In the Unit­ed States, com­pa­nies are already build­ing mod­ules that attach to the sta­tion and serve as bases for future pri­vate sta­tions. On a small­er scale, this is what the Euro­pean Space Agency is propos­ing with pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships in which the pri­vate part­ner pro­vides an all-in-one ser­vice, includ­ing trans­port to the space sta­tion, instal­la­tion of the mod­ules (which are stan­dard­ised) and basic resources such as a broad­band link for data trans­mis­sion, pow­er sup­ply or sam­ple recov­ery. It is a part­ner­ship that opens access to the ISS, opti­mis­es its oper­a­tion and speeds up research.

Europe has basic infra­struc­ture for con­duct­ing sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ments in space, but it is not ful­ly utilised thus pre­sent­ing a viable oppor­tu­ni­ty for a pri­vate part­ner to cre­ate a com­mer­cial ser­vice by offer­ing this infra­struc­ture to cus­tomers when it is not being used by the agency. That being said, indus­try part­ners can also build new infra­struc­ture to add to that.

Bar­tolomeo is an exam­ple of an ‘inte­grat­ed’ ser­vice that we have devel­oped in part­ner­ship with Air­bus Defence and Space. The devel­op­ment and oper­a­tion of which are entire­ly run and fund­ed by indus­try, with ESA pro­vid­ing resources avail­able such as trans­porta­tion, data exchange between Earth and space, and space on the Colum­bus mod­ule. This plat­form is docked to the Euro­pean Colum­bus mod­ule and lab­o­ra­to­ry out­side the ISS. It allows com­pa­nies and research cen­tres to con­duct exper­i­ments and work in space in the form of pay­load mod­ules, designed to devel­op new mate­ri­als, test tech­nolo­gies, or observe Earth or out­er space. In addi­tion, cus­tomers but can approach Air­bus direct­ly – who pro­vide the end-to-end – ser­vice with­out going through ESA.


What does ESA expect from such com­mer­cial services?

We have three objec­tives. First­ly, we want the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty to car­ry out work on our micro­grav­i­ty plat­forms to facil­i­tate ter­res­tri­al research and to open up this tool to new com­mu­ni­ties such as indus­tri­al R&D. Sec­ond­ly, as an agency, we need to con­tin­ue learn­ing how to pre­pare our plat­forms for future explo­ration mis­sions to the Moon and then to Mars. It is impor­tant to men­tion that, in a com­mer­cial con­text, the agency becomes one of many cus­tomers, with oth­er users (sci­en­tists and indus­try) procur­ing the ser­vices they need direct­ly. Final­ly, we want to avoid a sit­u­a­tion where only Amer­i­can com­pa­nies are present in low Earth orbit and our com­pa­nies and researchers must go through them. This is a new mar­ket where we want to be present by build­ing on our expe­ri­ence of the ISS.

Today, the cus­tomer buys a turnkey, end-to-end ser­vice. NASA, for exam­ple, buys from SpaceX the trans­port of n tonnes or four astro­nauts to the sta­tion. The US cur­rent­ly dom­i­nates the trans­porta­tion mar­ket with reusable launch­ers. Europe needs to think about the next phas­es and pre­pare for the ‘post-Ari­ane’ era. We devel­oped the Auto­mat­ed Trans­fer Vehi­cle launched by Ari­ane 5, which has resup­plied the ISS five times and was one of our con­tri­bu­tions to the part­ner­ship, allow­ing us access to the sta­tion. To repo­si­tion our­selves in today’s space mar­ket, we need to inno­vate and devel­op new services.

What ser­vices does ESA offer (or plan to offer)?

We cur­rent­ly offer three com­mer­cial ser­vices in low Earth orbit and are prepar­ing oth­ers for what we call the ‘future lunar econ­o­my’. In addi­tion to Bar­tolomeo, Space Appli­ca­tions Ser­vices SA mar­kets ICE Cubes. These cubes, with a stan­dard size of 10 cm on each side, con­tain var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic, tech­no­log­i­cal, or even artis­tic exper­i­ments. Researchers have an Inter­net con­nec­tion to mon­i­tor and con­trol them in real-time. ESA is respon­si­ble for trans­port­ing the cubes, installing them, and return­ing them to Earth after four months. The Biore­ac­tor Express is also a turnkey ser­vice for exper­i­ments con­duct­ed for one year in the Kayser Italia Kubik lab­o­ra­to­ry con­tain­er. For the ‘post-ISS’ era, we are explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for indus­try to build and mar­ket a com­plete plat­form in LEO offer­ing sci­ence and habi­ta­tion func­tions as a ser­vice. In addi­tion, ESA is devel­op­ing sev­er­al projects in the frame­work of the Moon explo­ration pro­grammes, for exam­ple with the Ger­man satel­lite man­u­fac­tur­er OHB, which pro­vides a trans­port ser­vice to the lunar sur­face. On the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions side, we are cur­rent­ly expand­ing the capac­i­ty of the Goon­hilly ground sta­tion in the UK to pro­vide com­mer­cial deep space com­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices on the Moon and beyond. To com­ple­ment this ground sta­tion, we are prepar­ing a con­stel­la­tion of four satel­lites in lunar orbit. These Com­mer­cial Lunar Mis­sion Sup­port Ser­vices (CLMSS) will be used for future explo­ration mis­sions to nav­i­gate around the Moon.

Booming space markets

Since the Per­se­ver­ance rover land­ed on the sur­face of Mars in Feb­ru­ary 2021, Mor­gan Stan­ley pub­lished a study on the space sec­tor and the promis­es of the so-called “new space”. Accord­ing to the Bank of Amer­i­ca, the eco­nom­ic weight of the sec­tor should increase from $350bn in 2016 to $1tn dol­lars in 2040 – a 185% increase! This growth is large­ly due to the emer­gence of satel­lite con­stel­la­tions ded­i­cat­ed to inter­net access, which were almost non-exis­tent in 2016 and which will rep­re­sent almost 40% of the sec­tor in 2040. The oth­er devel­op­ing mar­kets are deep space explo­ration mis­sions, to the Moon and then to Mars; Earth obser­va­tion and the study of cli­mate change; the mon­i­tor­ing and ‘clean­ing’ of debris, the grow­ing num­ber of which pos­es a threat to all space objects, main­ly in low orbit; and space tourism, which is tak­ing its first steps. Explo­ration mis­sions are still main­ly financed by gov­ern­ments and space agen­cies. Oth­er mar­kets, how­ev­er, derive their rev­enues from the sale of com­mer­cial ser­vices to gov­ern­ment agen­cies (mil­i­tary and sci­en­tif­ic), busi­ness­es and indi­vid­u­als: the sale of band­width, tele­coms, tele­vi­sion and soon travel.

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