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Ariane 6 and Vega C
Europe’s next-generation launch vehicles, the Ariane 6 (left) and Vega C, will enter service this year and next, even as launch operator Arianespace calls in European governments to provide more support to match what the US government offers rivals like SpaceX. (credit: ESA)

European space in a time of transition


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After ten months of conferences and meetings that have moved online because of the pandemic, it’s understandable that some want to try to do things a little differently. However, being a little too different can have its problems.

That was the case with the European Space Week conference, an event in early December intended to highlight the European Union’s space programs. Rather than have speakers appear in the typical featureless boxes of a Zoom webinar, organizers built an elaborate set, with separate screens for each speaker suspended from the ceiling. There was a backdrop of planets, images of stars and galaxies projected onto the floor, and a camera that continuously panned, zoomed and even tilted during the sessions. It may have been designed to make it appear that the speakers were floating in space, but instead risked inducing seasickness.

“This, right now, is the age of space,” said Jarzombek. “The good work from Commissioner Breton brought us the biggest space budget in the European Union ever.”

The high production values, though, couldn’t solve the problems like those encountered in many other webinars. One panelist from the German space agency DLR was never able to participate, his video working but his audio somehow disabled. At one point, a panel moderator somehow got disconnected. “It’s not easy being a digital moderator these days,” quipped Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the internal market, who took advantage of the moderator’s absence to continue a discussion the moderator had cut off earlier in the panel.

The emphasis of style (a fancy set) over substance (working connections) extended to the discussions themselves during a series of panel discussions that served as the keynotes of the conference. Breton and other officials praised the achievements of Europe in space, and predicted a bright future with the EU’s latest multi-year budget, called the multiannual financial framework (MFF), which was nearing final approval at the time of the conference.

“This, right now, is the age of space,” said Thomas Jarzombek, federal government coordinator for German Aerospace Policy, whose portfolio includes space. “The good work from Commissioner Breton brought us the biggest space budget in the European Union ever.”

That budget, announced in mid-December, allocates €13.2 billion ($16 billion) for the EU’s space programs over the seven-year period of the MFF, from 2021 to 2027. That’s up from the €11.3 billion (US$13.7 billion) spent during the previous MFF, from 2014 through 2020. (All amounts are in 2018 euro values, the reference year the European Commission chose when starting the budget process that year.)

But, the final amount is significantly less than the original proposals, which called for spending €14.2–15 billion (US$17.3–18.2 billion) over the same period. Space, and many other EU programs, faced budget cuts as priorities shifted to recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Moreover, most of EU space budget goes to two existing programs: the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus series of Earth observation spacecraft. Earlier budget proposals only left about half a billion euros for other projects, such as a space situational awareness (SSA) program and a proposed new government satellite communications, or GOVSATCOM, program.

Breton, though, made no mention of budget constraints at the conference. Continuing Copernicus and Galileo was just one of four main points in his vision for Europe’s future in space. The second was to “push Europe into the next technological frontier” through the SSA program and satellite communications. He envisioned a broadband constellation like those being developed by SpaceX, OneWeb, and other companies that would also provide secure government communications like that proposed by GOVSATCOM. Other elements included fostering European space entrepreneurship and maintaining European “autonomous access” to space.

After the EU finalized the MFF, it did move forward on that broadband constellation concept. In late December, the EU awarded a €7.1 million contract to a consortium of nine European companies, including satellite operators, manufacturers, and launch service providers, to begin studying this constellation.

How much money will be available for this remains unclear. During a panel discussion later at the European Space Week conference, Ekaterini Kavvada, head of the development and applications unit at the EU Directorate-General for Defense Industry and Space, said about €250 million would be allocated for the GOVSATCOM program for the entire seven-year MFF. By contrast, Amazon has stated it plans to spend up to $10 billion on Project Kuiper, its own broadband constellation.

Brexit

Another complication for the EU as it transitions into this new budget is the departure of the United Kingdom. Brexit put into question the UK’s participation in various EU programs, especially without a trade or cooperation agreement between the two governments.

“We hope that the UK can join the program in Brussels. This is the default option and this is what we hope for,” said Aschbacher.

Galileo was relatively straightforward: the UK would no longer participate in that satellite navigation program or have access to encrypted signals (UK users of the system, of course, could continue to use the free public service, like people around the world.) The UK had known for some time that would be the case, leading the British government to study the possibility of developing its own satellite navigation system. It may have also been a factor in the British government’s decision, in cooperation with Indian telecom company Bharti Global, to purchase the assets of OneWeb last summer after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, although how OneWeb could provide position, navigation, and timing services remains unclear.

Copernicus, the other major EU space program, was more complicated. Copernicus is a joint program of EU and the European Space Agency, with both contributing funding. ESA is not part of the EU, and the UK remains a member state of that agency even after leaving the EU. “There we have some issues, especially also with industrial participation,” said Jan Wörner, director general of ESA, at a December 17 press conference.

“We hope that the UK can join the program in Brussels. This is the default option and this is what we hope for,” added Josef Aschbacher, director of Earth observation at ESA, at that briefing.

A week later, he got what he hoped for. The EU and UK announced an agreement governing the relationship between the two post-Brexit, effective January 1. That agreement states that the UK can “participate in the Copernicus component of the Space programme and benefit from Copernicus services and products in the same way as other participating countries.”

“Very glad that BREXIT agreement allows UK to participate in EU Copernicus programme 2021-27. UK already participates in @esa programme,” Aschbacher tweeted December 28. “UK’s excellence in science and technology is essential for us all - to take the pulse of our planet from space.”

ESA transition

Aschbacher will soon be thinking about more than the UK’s participation in the Copernicus program. At the December 17 press conference, ESA announced that its member states had selected him to become the next director general, succeeding Wörner.

“I’m very honored, but this is a major challenge,” Aschbacher said at a press conference. “There’s a lot at stake for space in Europe, and I’m certainly looking forward to tackling these challenges with the best of my abilities.”

He said at the briefing that he would wait until he takes office to describe in detail his agenda for his four-year term, but at the announcement highlighted a few issues. One is improving the relationship between ESA and the EU, as the two organizations negotiate an updated financial agreement called the Financial Framework Partnership Agreement governing their roles and responsibilities in Copernicus and Galileo.

“The ESA-EU relationship, at large, I think is a very important aspect,” he said. “It’s defining the future of ESA. What the relation is between ESA and the European Union will be very critical about how ESA positions itself not just for the next year or two, but the long term.”

“I will look back on my time as Director General of ESA with great fondness. As I’ve said before, I consider it to be the most extraordinary job and a real privilege to be able to do it,” Wörner said.

He also wants to help bolster the European commercial space industry, noting that Europe lacked disruptive companies like SpaceX or imaging provider Planet. “This is something we need to look into. I have some ideas how this can be done, but I don’t want to go deeper at this point.”

Aschbacher, who became head of ESA’s Earth observation programs in 2016, was well known to the agency’s member states, and to Wörner. “I am confident that Josef will do the best for ESA,” Wörner said.

Wörner became ESA director general in 2015 for a four-year term, which ESA members extended by two years at his request to avoid his term ending around the time of the 2019 ministerial meeting (see “Funding Europe’s space ambitions”, The Space Review, December 2, 2019.) As part of that agreement, he was eligible for two additional terms of three years each, but announced in early 2020 he would not seek another term, having reportedly grown weary of internal politics at the agency.

His term was set to expire at the end of June, and at the press conference he insisted he would serve out his term. “My contract goes until the 30th of June and I’m ready and eager to fulfill my mandate,” he said when asked if he might leave early.

On Friday, though, he announced he changed his mind. He wrote in a blog post that after discussions with the ESA Council, he agreed to leave at the end of February, four months early. He explained that the decision was due to several factors, ranging from Aschbacher’s familiarity with ESA to “duration of the transition and its consequences internally and externally.”

“I will look back on my time as Director General of ESA with great fondness. As I’ve said before, I consider it to be the most extraordinary job and a real privilege to be able to do it,” he wrote in his blog post. “Of course, I will miss it.”

Arianespace’s transition to a new generation of launch vehicles

At the same ESA Council meeting last month where member states selected Aschbacher to be the next director general, they also agreed to provide €218 million (US$265 million) in additional funding for the Ariane 6 program. That funding will cover delays in its development announced in October that have pushed back the first launch of the vehicle to the second quarter of 2022.

There isn’t much room for additional delays. At a press briefing last Thursday, Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said there are only eight of the workhorse Ariane 5 rockets left for the company to launch. Three of those launches are scheduled for this year, including one launching NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope now scheduled for late October.

The remaining five Ariane 5 rockets are scheduled to launch in 2022. “We would like to end the operations of Ariane 5 in 2022,” he said. “If some payloads are late, we can go to 2023. There are no problems with that, even though our target is the end of 2022.”

Another issue for the Ariane 6 is a customer for the first launch. OneWeb originally planned to launch a cluster of its satellites on that inaugural launch, but when it renegotiated its contract with Arianespace last September elected to exclusively use Soyuz rockets.

“What is happening in the US must be taken into consideration for the European strategy because there is a level of public money with no precedent, and it is clear that our competitor is benefiting from this money,” Israël said.

ESA, Israël said, is in reality the primary customer for that launch, since it will be a qualification mission for future Ariane 6 launches of European government payloads. Arianespace is still looking for a commercial payload that can fly on that launch and is in discussions with one potential customer, but “it’s too early to say whether it will materialize.”

Arianespace is also planning for the introduction of an upgraded version of its Vega small launch vehicle, the Vega C, this year. The Vega had done well, at least technically, with its first 14 launches all successful. However, two of the last three have failed, including a launch in November where the upper stage lost control. An investigation quickly found that two cables used in the stage’s thrust vector control system were inverted; an embarrassing lapse of quality control.

Israël said he expected the Vega to return to flight by the end of March, with four Vega launches, including the first Vega C, scheduled for 2020. “We will work very hard with Avio,” the prime contractor of the Vega, to ensure recommendations from an independent investigation are implemented. “I am confident that, after this unfortunate event, Vega will be more reliable than what it has been.”

He also used the 90-minute press conference to call for greater support of Arianespace from European governments. He compared the government support his company got with what he argued was much greater support the US government provided to launch companies, especially SpaceX.

“What is happening in the US must be taken into consideration for the European strategy because there is a level of public money with no precedent, and it is clear that our competitor is benefiting from this money,” he said, referring to SpaceX.

He cited as an example of that support the National Security Space Launch contract that SpaceX, along with United Launch Alliance, received in August covering nearly three dozen launches over the next several years (see “Losers and (sore) winners”, The Space Review, August 24, 2020). He pressed the EU to follow through on plans for a similar bulk buy of Ariane 6 and Vega C launches potentially worth €1 billion, something EU officials discussed last year but have yet to finalize.

He suggested even more changes in how the EU supports Europe’s launch industry. “There is a very strong case to renew the public-private partnership around Ariane 6 and Vega C for this decade and create the conditions for a more balanced competition between Europe and our competitor in the United States,” he said, but didn’t discuss what that would be, beyond a role for Arianespace in launching the proposed European broadband satellite constellation. (Arianespace is one of the companies in the consortium that received the EU study contract for that constellation.)

At last month’s European Space Week conference, Breton, the EU commissioner, said Europe needed to look beyond the Ariane 6 and Vega C. “We need to anticipate and prepare for the future generation, so as to remain at the top,” he said, but didn’t elaborate on what that might involve, such as reusable launchers.

“The transformation of European space has begun,” he declared at that event. That transformation, though, is complex, and won’t be completed any time soon.


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