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 mins reading time
Europe’s role in the new space economy
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.