February 3, 2013

The serious business of space

RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / ESA / STEPHANE CORVAJA" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS A handout picture released by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the launching of a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Sinnamary, 12km from Kourou, French Guiana. Soyuz will place the second pair of Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites into orbit, on 12 October 2012. AFP PHOTO /ESA/STEPHANE CORVAJA
RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / ESA / STEPHANE CORVAJA" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS A handout picture released by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the launching of a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Sinnamary, 12km from Kourou, French Guiana. Soyuz will place the second pair of Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites into orbit, on 12 October 2012. AFP PHOTO /ESA/STEPHANE CORVAJA

For the last five years, January has been the month when European politicians, policy experts, entrepreneurs and scientists congregate in Brussels to discuss outer space matters. Annual European Space Conference under the patronage of the three presidents (EU Commission‘s, Council‘s and Parliament‘s) has become a highlight event for the European space sector as well as a grand networking opportunity for everyone involved. Wherever one sits in the “value chain” — in the upstream of creating new technologies for space exploration and exploitation, or in the downstream of creating and using new applications, or in the pervasive current of policymaking and execution — this is the time and place to be and mingle. As Estonia is about to become a space nation, by virtue of putting the ESTCube-1 (nano)satellite into low orbit in a short while (not to mention having recently become a full member of the European Interparliamentary Space Conference and, a few years ago, a cooperating state with the European Space Agency), this is not the forum to be missed for its policy and business folk.

For the last five years, January has been the month when European politicians, policy experts, entrepreneurs and scientists congregate in Brussels to discuss outer space matters. Annual European Space Conference under the patronage of the three presidents (EU Commission‘s, Council‘s and Parliament‘s) has become a highlight event for the European space sector as well as a grand networking opportunity for everyone involved. Wherever one sits in the “value chain” — in the upstream of creating new technologies for space exploration and exploitation, or in the downstream of creating and using new applications, or in the pervasive current of policymaking and execution — this is the time and place to be and mingle. As Estonia is about to become a space nation, by virtue of putting the ESTCube-1 (nano)satellite into low orbit in a short while (not to mention having recently become a full member of the European Interparliamentary Space Conference and, a few years ago, a cooperating state with the European Space Agency), this is not the forum to be missed for its policy and business folk.

Space matters certainly deserve attention. Our daily life – its quality and its safety — is quite dependent on services enabled by space-based assets and on technologies which became possible due to space-based research. Maritime, air and land transport, telecommunications, land use management, environmental monitoring, agriculture, disaster response, border protection, crisis management, military and intelligence operations, scientific research – these are just a few areas which spring into mind that are heavily relying on data generated by or relayed through space-based assets. And it is the sector generating substantial revenues as well as creating and sustaining many businesses and jobs: by some estimates, 7% of the EU-27 GDP already depends on the availability of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). Add satellite communications, imagery and other services, and the figure goes upwards substantially. It comes as no surprise then that full 80% of Europeans consider space research a high priority – a Eurobarometer poll figure duly cited by the chief scientific advisor to the EU Commission’s president. It is also a strategic matter: access to space is becoming one of the critical ingredients determining the ability of geopolitical players to act independently and globally. In a long run, Europe without such access would become a second-tier player whose aspirations to shape global agenda are not backed up by technological capabilities (much in a way that its diminishing military capabilities are also bound to consign it to geopolitical irrelevance). Although the European space sector is a playground of “big boys” such as France, small EU member states will eventually be affected by what the EU does (or does not do) in this field: they have their own users, public and private, of space sector services; they have their own scientific and industrial aspirations; and they have a stake in Europe becoming a strong and coherent player globally.
Several main observations can be gleaned from the 2013 event. First, European stakeholders of the space sector are worried. Although there has been a lot of cheerful celebration (“ESA is the best space agency in the world”, “Europe is number one in launchers”, etc.), there is an underlying anxiety that Europe will lose its competitiveness, its space scientific, technological, engineering and industrial base as well as its future income and influence if it loses momentum or gets something wrong. And, indeed, many things can go wrong. Public and private investments into research and development may decrease, especially when economic crisis keeps biting: many stakeholders nervously await the outcomes of fraught negotiations about the EU budget (Multiyear Financial Framework in euro-speak) for the next seven years, which may well determine the fate of such flagship projects as the European GNSS, “Galileo”, or the Earth monitoring system, “Copernicus”. (If those stall, the expectations of generating 120 bn euros worth of commercial and public services over the same period will be dashed). Absent, inadequate or misguided regulatory framework may prompt entire high-value sectors of space or space-reliant industry move out of Europe (or never take off), along with associated technological competences which are very difficult, if not impossible, to reconstitute. This would leave Europeans ever dependent on the United States, Russia or even rising space powers such as China and India to access and exploit space – not a good position to end up in for an entity with global ambitions. A call to ensure long-term Europe’s technological and industrial non-dependence (at least in key areas such as launchers), combined with a marketing pitch that space technology is going to underpin the next Industrial Revolution (read: become a powerful engine of growth and wealth), is expected to sway the EU heads of states and governments due to resume their budget talks soon.
Second observation is that, just as in many other fields, European space sector is a complex and complicated tangle of actors – supranational (EU Commission, EU Parliament), inter-governmental (such as ESA) and national (national governments and their space agencies) — where coordination, coherent policy and action as well as synergy are very difficult to achieve. The Commission holds a big purse for research in the form of its Framework Programmes (the forthcoming one is called Horizons 2020) as well as runs many policies and agendas dependent, to one degree or another, on or inclusive of space sector’s development (e.g. Digital Agenda, climate policy or Growth Strategy). The ESA pools resources and competencies of its own members in space sector to conduct research, develop new technologies, or place and operate assets in space, but it is not under the Commission’s authority. And many national governments conduct their own national research programmes, have their own space and industrial policies and operate their own assets in space. All of this leads to unnecessary competition, duplication of investments and efforts, or contradictory approaches. (As one panellist noted, “we‘ve seen growing duplication of competences in Europe, not their broadening and deepening”). Despite much rejoicing that these actors are becoming better and better at collaboration, a coherent European space strategy is still making its way through endless discussions, communications and studies at the time when other, nimbler global players are steaming ahead.
Last, but not least, defence implications and applications of European space projects and initiatives are even less thought through. Uniformed participants were lurking at the event and even made it onto the stage, in the person of the new EU Military Committee’s chairman. However, Europeans seem to have a cultural and mental problem with weaving together civilian, civil security and military aspects of their activities, especially when military aspects pop up. There is clear acknowledgment in Brussels that space is inherently dual-use: publicly regulated services generated by Europe’s (civilian) space-based assets can be put to both military and civilian uses just as they can be used for the society’s well-being as well as misused for nefarious purposes. There is also strong recognition among civilians that no modern military operation can be run without relying on secure satellite communications or intelligence gathering from space, so successful military missions in the framework of the CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) are not possible without a space element. But civilian players are still too coy about including military considerations into their thinking about European space strategy (which is not the case with civil security matters). This may sound relatively harmless in peacetime, when economic or public safety considerations and priorities prevail, but will come to haunt us in times of crises and wars, when military requirements and arguments become paramount.
There are legitimate and pertinent questions that the EU regulators and the operators of, for example, “Galileo” and “Copernicus” systems will have to answer: can the availability of their services be constrained if they benefit military adversaries and/or endanger military operations of the EU? Under what circumstances and how? Will it be possible to divert some European civilian space assets to address urgent military needs of the CSDP missions if there are problems with national or commercial capabilities employed in those missions? How will the EU prepare for and react to the attempts to blind, jam or even hack and hijack its satellites and their signals during an on-going military operation or during a major international security crisis? Will such actions severely affecting civilian critical services providers warrant some political and military action from the EU and its member states? Should the EU consider restricting, and by how much, the exports of sensitive space technologies and components which may benefit potential geopolitical and military opponents (much in the way the U.S. do with their ITAR regime, to the detriment of their space industry’s global competitiveness), even if that is damaging economically? These are just a few concerns, coming on top of various issues which should be, or already are being dealt with in the broader framework of the CFSP such as the threat of space militarisation/weaponisation, anti-satellite capabilities of emerging powers or promotion of responsible behaviour in space. And these are the questions that Estonia will have to understand and articulate its position, or perhaps even contribute to solving if it manages to successfully carve out a niche for itself in the European space research, technology and, most importantly, applications market.

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