29 Nov 2012   |   News

EU Ministers look to space to boost Europe’s competitiveness and growth

EU budget negotiations may be stalled, with possible consequences for future R&D funding. But at least one collaborative science project – the European Space Agency - has agreed its long-term funding

While other pan-European science projects face an uncertain future after EU heads of state reached an impasse on the size of the overall European Union budget for 2014 – 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA) concluded a successful two-day council meeting at which ministers from ESA’s 20 member states and Canada agreed to allocate €10 billion for ESA’s activities and programmes from 2013 – 2017.

While this was €2 billion less than hoped for, it represented a welcome, uncluttered conclusion at a time of austerity, when the national governments that fund ESA directly are cutting spending elsewhere.

The investment will be focused on fields which ESA claims have high growth potential or with a direct and immediate impact on the economy, such as telecommunications and meteorology. Along with general running costs, ministers agreed to proposals for Earth Observation projects and confirmed Europe’s commitment to the exploitation of the International Space Station (ISS).

The budget also covers detailed definition studies of ESA’s new launcher Ariane 6 and the continuation of the development of Ariane 5. These activities are funded for two years with a decision on the continuation of both launchers to be taken in 2014. This resolves the tension that had developed over those countries that wanted to see an enhanced version of Ariane 5, and others, notably France that wanted to go full steam ahead to the next generation launcher Ariane 6.

Multipurpose Crewe Vehicle

Plans for Europe to provide the service module of NASA’s new Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV received the green light, as an in-kind contribution for ISS operations for 2017–20. The commitment is seen as strategically important for Europe, as it will enable  cooperation between ESA and NASA on the future human space transportation system.

Ministers also initiated a process which will work on how ESA can adapt its operations to take benefit of both its intergovernmental framework and the EU’s skills and competences in space. This was also supported by ministers from seven of the EU member states not yet members of ESA, who were present at the meeting.

UK highlights its contribution

The UK government made a fanfare of announcing its investment of around £240 million per year over the next five years to ESA, saying this will, “ensure the UK plays a lead role in frontier scientific research concerning the solar system, the sun and the universe beyond.” It will deliver indisputably world-class science, the government said.

The optional programmes to which the UK is contributing, including the International Space Station, have been selected to maximise the economic growth to the UK, bringing business directly to the sector through future orders.

One example is the £81 million the UK will invest in the Metop 2G earth observation satellite This investment will allow UK industry to play a key role in developing the prototype satellite. In the previous budget cycle, beginning in 2008, the UK did not invest in this programme.

In an demonstration of its intent to translate the overall investment into growth, the UK government said it will put £28 million into ESA’s Generic Support Technology Programme. This is designed to take early phase space technology R&D across the ‘valley of death’ into practical applications. It is seen as particularly important for SMEs and equipment suppliers which get to work with European partners and benefit from interacting with ESA’s technical management.

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