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Space industry: what are the scientific and geopolitical challenges for Europe?

Pierre Henriquet
Pierre Henriquet
Doctor in Nuclear Physics and Columnist at Polytechnique Insights
Key takeaways
  • Our understanding of the Solar System today has benefited greatly from European missions to study bodies such as Venus, Mercury and the Moon.
  • The future is rich in new missions: the Bepi-Colombo probe, launched in 2018, is on its way to Mercury and the JUICE probe will reach Jupiter in 2031.
  • But the European Space Agency's (ESA) budget is 8 times smaller than that of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
  • Cooperation between space agencies is inevitable, but also subject to geopolitical uncertainties: in 2022, Russia withdrew from the ExoMars programme.
  • While Europe has made considerable progress on the scientific front, it still has to overcome industrial and commercial weaknesses that threaten its autonomy in this field.

On 14 April, JUICE (one of the Euro­pean Space Agen­cy’s most ambi­tious space explo­ration mis­sions) left on board one of the last Ari­ane 5 rock­ets bound for Jupiter. After 8 years of trav­el­ling through the Solar Sys­tem and 3 grav­i­ta­tion­al assists near the Earth and Venus, it will final­ly reach its des­ti­na­tion: Europa, Ganymede and Cal­lis­to, the icy moons of Jupiter. Its main objec­tive is to ver­i­fy the exis­tence of the inter­nal oceans of these nat­ur­al satel­lites and to bet­ter under­stand their char­ac­ter­is­tics in order to deter­mine their rel­e­vance to the search for life out­side Earth.

This excit­ing mis­sion to Jupiter is just one of Europe’s many space projects. But where does Europe stand in rela­tion to its Amer­i­can, Russ­ian and Chi­nese com­peti­tors (and some­times part­ners)? What issues is it cur­rent­ly tack­ling, and what chal­lenges does it need to antic­i­pate for the future? The answer depends very much on what we call ‘space’…

An undeniable lead in the scientific space sector

« Doing more with less » is Europe’s cre­do when it comes to design­ing, build­ing and send­ing high-tech mis­sions into space to dis­cov­er the Universe. 

From 2019 to 2024, the bud­get of the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) has been set at a total of 14.4 bil­lion euros (the price of a cin­e­ma tick­et paid each year by every Euro­pean cit­i­zen). For the same peri­od, the total bud­get of the US Nation­al Aero­nau­tics and Space Admin­is­tra­tion (NASA) is around 123 bil­lion dol­lars, more than 8 times as much. The dif­fer­ence in fund­ing between the two agen­cies has always been enor­mous, but this has not pre­vent­ed Europe from shin­ing with its sci­en­tif­ic mis­sions. The least we can say is that our cur­rent knowl­edge of the Solar Sys­tem has ben­e­fit­ed great­ly from all the Euro­pean explo­ration missions.

NASA’s bud­get is 8 times that of the ESA.

The Sun (Ulysses, Solar Orbiter), Mer­cury (Bepi Colom­bo), Venus (Venus Express), the Moon (SMART‑1), Mars (Mars Express, Exo­Mars TGO), Sat­urn (and the land­ing of the Huy­gens mod­ule on Titan), comets (Roset­ta): all these bod­ies have been observed, analysed, mon­i­tored and probed by teams of sci­en­tists and engi­neers from the Euro­pean Space Agency. And the future already holds a wealth of new mis­sions. The Bepi-Colom­bo probe, launched in 2018, is on its way to Mer­cury; the JUICE probe, which left Earth last April, will reach Jupiter in 2031; and final­ly the HERA mis­sion will take off at the end of 2024 to observe the impact crater that the Amer­i­can DART probe cre­at­ed by deflect­ing the small aster­oid Dimorphos.

Plan­e­tary explo­ration is just one part of Europe’s sci­en­tif­ic explo­ration pro­gramme. The dis­tant Uni­verse can some­times only be observed from space, by plac­ing tele­scopes far from Earth. XMM-New­ton (X‑rays), Inte­gral (gam­ma rays) and Gaïa (vis­i­ble light) are all spe­cialised instru­ments that have rev­o­lu­tionised our under­stand­ing of stars and galax­ies. In July 2023, the Euro­pean space tele­scope Euclid will be sent 1.5 mil­lion km from Earth to tack­le the entire Uni­verse and the famous mys­tery of dark ener­gy, respon­si­ble for its expansion.

An inevitable cooperation

But the major space agen­cies can­not sup­port all the pro­grammes they launch on their own, which also encour­ages their com­peti­tors to enter into fruit­ful part­ner­ships. For exam­ple, Europe par­tic­i­pat­ed in the devel­op­ment of the famous James Webb space tele­scope, there­by sav­ing obser­va­tion time for its sci­en­tif­ic teams. In the Artemis pro­gramme, half of the Ori­on space­craft (its ser­vice mod­ule) was man­u­fac­tured in Europe, as were sev­er­al mod­ules of the future Gate­way lunar space sta­tion, guar­an­tee­ing Euro­pean astro­nauts places in this vast pro­gramme to return to the Moon.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, inter­na­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion also means being depen­dent on oth­er coun­tries and being sen­si­tive to geopo­lit­i­cal uncer­tain­ties. Fol­low­ing the war with Ukraine, Rus­si­a’s with­draw­al in 2022 from the Exo­Mars pro­gramme (planned land­ing on Mars of the first Euro­pean Mars rover) has sig­nif­i­cant­ly delayed this mis­sion. The time need­ed to man­u­fac­ture the part of the probe that was ded­i­cat­ed to Rus­sia has now passed, and the launch is not sched­uled before 2028.

An industrial and commercial space sector in the throes of restructuring

Not every­thing is going well for Europe in space. On the sci­en­tif­ic front, things are look­ing up, but on the indus­tri­al and com­mer­cial front, things are more uncer­tain. Fol­low­ing a num­ber of delays, the future Ari­ane 6 (which was ini­tial­ly due to be launched before Ari­ane 5’s final lift-off, to pro­vide a tech­ni­cal link between the two) will not actu­al­ly be able to leave before 2024, leav­ing at least one year with­out Europe being able to use its launch­er to pur­sue its space pro­grammes (sci­en­tif­ic, com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary). In the mean­time, there is a risk that some pri­vate cus­tomers will turn to oth­er solu­tions for access to space (Amer­i­can or even Indi­an), seri­ous­ly threat­en­ing Europe’s auton­o­my in this area.

The emer­gence on the oth­er side of the Atlantic of a new com­mer­cial­ly aggres­sive and agile pri­vate space sec­tor, based on the use of new tech­nolo­gies and greater (eco­nom­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal) risk-tak­ing, is also push­ing the com­mer­cial organ­i­sa­tion of Euro­pean space to its lim­its (where New Space also start­ed, but lat­er, and has devel­oped less than in the Unit­ed States).

The inter­nal work­ings of the Euro­pean Space Agency are also being called into question.

In Decem­ber 2022, ESA signed a €33 mil­lion con­tract with Ari­ane­Group (France) to devel­op a reusable (oxygen/methane) space­craft called Themis, pow­ered by its new Prometheus engine. Tests are due to take place in Kiruna (Swe­den) by 2024, then in Kourou (French Guiana) in 2025–2026. Will this new Euro­pean reusable tech­nol­o­gy be ready in time? Will it find its place in Europe’s com­mer­cial offer­ing against oth­er nations? Only time will tell.

But more gen­er­al­ly, the inter­nal work­ings of the Euro­pean Space Agency are also being called into ques­tion. The prin­ci­ple of « geo­graph­i­cal return », for exam­ple, where­by Europe invests in each Mem­ber State (in the form of con­tracts award­ed to its indus­try to car­ry out space activ­i­ties) an amount equiv­a­lent to that coun­try’s con­tri­bu­tion. The idea is to enable the coun­try’s com­pa­nies to win cer­tain con­tracts and acquire new tech­nolo­gies. But the oth­er side of the coin is that this sys­tem gen­er­ates polit­i­cal dis­agree­ments between the lead­ers of each state, in addi­tion to being man­aged by a cum­ber­some and slow administration.

Will we be able to pri­ori­tise sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal inter­ests at the expense of polit­i­cal inter­ests? The next strate­gic deci­sions will be tak­en in 2025, at the next ESA min­is­te­r­i­al meet­ing. In the mean­time, we are wit­ness­ing major eco­nom­ic, geopo­lit­i­cal and strate­gic changes, and the response of Europe in space is await­ed by many with inter­est… and impatience.

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