Europe strikes out for greater role in space

15 Oct 2020 | News

New public-private partnership aims to make EU space industry more competitive and independent, but will it have lift off?

A new public-private research partnership between the European Commission and the EU’s space industry is set to boost Europe’s competitiveness in a global market dominated by the US and China.

“We cannot say tomorrow Europe is going to be the US. What we can do is try to go out and help stakeholders develop research and new services and technology that would allow them to be competitive,” Jérémy Hallakoun, technology strategy manager at the industry body Eurospace, told Science|Business.

The idea for a space research partnership under the EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe, was first mooted in the European Parliament in 2016.

Four years later, a proposal drafted by the European Commission and five industry and research organisation associations, Eurospace, EARTO, SME4Space, ESRE, and EASN, is in the commission‘s hands, which will decide whether to approve the partnership, and with what budget.

The proposal suggests the total budget should be around €3 billion, with industry partners leveraging at least €1.2 for every euro invested by the commission. Industry would like to see an earmarked, open access budget but is still negotiating the terms with the commission.

But Germany, Italy, and Spain are not convinced Europe needs a new space partnership, making the industry uneasy about the prospects. Last week, the five associations behind the proposal sent a letter to EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton asking for his support in this final stretch in the process of it setting up.

Hallakoun says the associations have done everything in their power to get the plan off the ground. Now, all the cards are in the commission‘s hands.

The main challengers to the European space industry’s competitiveness are newcomers that benefit from lucrative public contracts in the US and elsewhere. “We have newcomers that disrupt the market because they have strong institutional support, and they are flexible,” says Hallakoun.

For any space-related company, success depends mostly on winning contracts from publicly-funded agencies. In the US, the industry is thriving thanks to regular orders from agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Chinese government, similarly, is an important client.

Europe, despite significantly less government support, has one of the best value chains in the world.  “It is amazing that with the institutional support we have that we can go out and win tenders,” said Hallakoun.

Lack of support from public institutions, means European companies depend on clients outside the EU to survive. However, with China and US increasingly developing more aggressive commercial strategies, it is becoming more difficult for European companies to compete.

With a roadmap that includes capturing 50 per cent of the global telecom satellite market and Europe becoming the worldwide leader for Earth observation systems, amongst other goals, the partners hope to lift the European space economy.

Technology sovereignty in space

The other side of the coin is the need to develop a fully European value chain, so it does not rely on products from other countries. Having an independent space sector is strategically important for Europe. Hallakoun says regulation in the US, for example, can change at any point, banning space-related exports and putting Europe’s space economy at risk.

Given enough support, the European space industry could develop fully European satellites and other products, but this depends on member states agreeing to invest more. With adequate funding, Hallakoun estimates Europe can hope to have an independent sector in the next 10 to 20 years.

In fact, funding for space research is on the rise. “Space is a growing factor in the overall EU budget,” says Hans Bracquené, chair of SME4Space. The budget dedicated to space under the last EU budget was as big as half of the European Space Agency’s budget.

Ana Maria Madrigal, the head of the space and aeronautics programme at the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology, who represented EARTO  in the planning for the partnership, says the collaboration combines a push to create new technology with a market pull. “There is room for the whole value chain from universities, to research centres, to industry,” she said.

This is reflected in the partners involved with the project, which range from research organisations to SMEs.

Research and technology organisations already work with industry, helping small and large companies bring innovation to the market. “The role of research organisations is to innovate and transfer technology to industry,” said Madrigal.

Within the framework of partnership, these collaborations will be more organised and continuous. Until now, the main issue has been a lack of continuity between different projects, says Madrigal.

In Horizon 2020, space research was fragmented and mainly bottom-up, focusing on lower technology readiness levels. The average contribution per participant was a round €300,000, one of the lowest rates of contribution, notes Hallakoun.

Coordinating efforts through the partnership will ensure projects covering similar topics are not segmented. Hallakoun says the industry hopes it will also help to launch bigger demonstrator projects.

More and more SMEs are entering the space market, making it “a really vibrant new world,” says Bracquené. A recent survey suggests there are 800 - 1000 active SMEs in Europe’s space sector that get contracts from ESA and the EU.

Smaller companies usually take a partner role in bigger projects, however, Bracquené hopes the new partnership can help introduce more flexible, smaller projects to the research ecosystem, which could be led by SMEs.

There are also discussions about involving member states’ national space agencies. However, this has proven difficult so far, admits Hallakoun.

Aside from the budget talks, Madrigal says the commission has been helpful in the planning and the two sides managed to align their goals well.

If all goes well, space will become one of the EU’s 40-odd public-private partnerships. Until the commission takes its final decision, there are three ways the planning could go from here: a launch in 2021, postponement to 2023, or there will be no EU space partnership in the foreseeable future.

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