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New Ambition for European Space

In collaboration with its member states, industry, the scientific community and the EU, ESA is working on transforming the Space landscape, emphasizes European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Dr. Josef Aschbacher.

BY Prof. Arup Dasgupta & Sanjay Kumar

How do you view technology innovation and business directions in the Space sector globally?

Today, we are seeing a revolution in Space and the entire Space economy and landscape is being turned upside down. On the one hand we are witnessing huge investments from the public sector in the US, China, India, the United Arab Emirates, to name just a few.  These countries are heavily investing in Space because they realize that Space holds great public value through economic, societal and strategic benefits. On the other hand, we are witnessing a growing trend around commercialization. We have companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Planet doing quite well. Some of these companies have been created in the Silicon Valley through venture capital funding. The commercial side of the sector is blooming, and we have private players offering products and services that were earlier provided only by the public sector. This is a very positive sign as it is going to bring sustainability, especially since the commercial players are driving the sector with a different energy.

At ESA, we are not only looking to be a part of these trends but would also like to shape them through public investments, and by creating a supportive environment for companies, startups, new ideas and products. We want to help the commercial players succeed, because there is a lot of talent in software development, AI, quantum computing all the way to satellite manufacturing. We want this talent to be utilized for the larger good of people globally. Copernicus and Climate Change is the best example how Europe invests in Space.

The Space economy will rise to $1 trillion by 2040. What do you think will be the share of Europe?

At present, Europe has 17% share in the global Space economy. I would like it to increase significantly, not only for economic reasons but also for strategic, geo-political and societal reasons. As I have said repeatedly, there is a lot of potential and capabilities in Europe. Some of this potential is ‘sleeping’ and we need to wake up this ‘sleeping beauty’. I am determined to do that in the near future.

Can you throw some light on the industrial development strategy of ESA?

I strongly believe that we have to take some bold steps in this direction. Of course, we are known for good satellites that will continue to be developed. But on the commercial front, we need to catch up with others. We have, for example, initiated a program called InCubed, under which we work with startups and provide them technology access and support, help them in receiving and analyzing data, among other things. We have many small companies coming to us with an idea, looking at us as a complementary partner. I would also like to make framework agreements with investment banks and venture capital firms to set up a more organized system, so that we can further build this landscape.

Europe has a lot of excellent individual capabilities, but the inability to streamline these capabilities and have a coherent policy is a weakness. We recognize this weakness and would like to overcome it through constructive dialogue and spirit among the partners.

With huge investments expected in Space infrastructure in the near future, do you see more public-private partnerships and companies coming forward to co-invest with ESA?

Let’s look at what happens in the US. We all quote the example of SpaceX. But we also know that SpaceX would not exist without NASA. SpaceX has received more than $10 billion from NASA, both for development of the rocket and for procurement of launch services. The private sector can flourish if the right conditions are provided by the public sector. ESA is putting in place a framework to enable and support private entities. An organized way of how public and private entities work together is fundamental to boosting commercialization of Space. It works very well in the US and we need to do the same in Europe. During my tenure as Director General, I want to lift ESA by one level and bring it closer to NASA in terms of capabilities, investments and funding for programs.

The ESA Agenda 2025 talks about collaboration between different players at different levels. What kind of mechanisms are you looking to put in place to achieve coherence?

Europe has a lot of excellent individual capabilities, but the inability to streamline these capabilities and have a coherent policy is a weakness. We recognize this weakness and would like to overcome it through constructive dialogue and spirit among the partners. We do not want an environment where organizations are trying to compete with each other or carving out territories and complaining that someone else entered into their space. A lot has to be done and by working together much more coherently we can achieve much more.

The Agenda has a mention of commercialization gaining momentum in the US, India and Japan, but not so much in Europe. Why is that?

That’s a good question. Europe has a lot of potential, but we haven’t worked very aggressively and haven’t been too open to risks, as compared to other countries or the Silicon Valley, where they say, ‘fail fast, fast forward’. This trend is not expressed strongly in Europe. I would like to shake up my friends and experts here to help them realize what’s happening around the world. Of course with the goal to become more agile in this fast developing market segment.

The US had over $5 billion of private investment in Space in 2019, whereas in Europe, only 188 million Euros was invested in startups and new companies. These numbers clearly show a huge difference. I think that’s because in Europe, Space hasn’t got the attention and support it should have from the political leadership. In the US, China or India, Space is much more integrated as a key element of society and is part of the strategic agenda of the country. So, in these countries, you have the heads of State defining the Space policy — Joe Biden in the US and Xi Jinping in China. In Europe, we have several entities talking of Space. There has to be a clear message and a coherent strategy, and the process has to be lifted by one level — from the ministers in-charge of Space to heads of States or Governments. That’s one ambition we have expressed in Agenda 2025, together with the European Commission, to raise this debate to the level of the heads of States or Governments.

At present, Europe has 17% share in the global Space economy. I would like it to increase significantly, not only for economic reasons but also for strategic, geo-political and societal reasons. There is a lot of potential in Europe. Some of this potential is ‘sleeping’ and we need to wake up this ‘sleeping beauty’. I am determined to do that in the near future.

Europe is known to have too many regulations that sometimes prevent startups from carrying out the desired innovation. How do you plan to streamline processes and ensure debureaucratization?

One of our top priorities under the 2025 Agenda is to transform ESA. ESA is already a strong and excellent organization. But we are looking to cut red tape, simplify procedures, speed-up processes and help small and young companies work with us in a much simpler way. I would like to really change ESA from the inside, to make it a responsive, dynamic and modern agency that can take up challenges of the next decade.

China’s Space expansion hasn’t gone unnoticed in recent times. Does it have an effect on decision-making in Europe?

It’s fascinating to see how fast and bold China has been in terms to getting into Space. They have started work on building a Space station and have landed on the backside of the Moon. They are building a navigation program, an Earth Observation program and a telecommunications program. All of this is quite impressive. For Europe, on one side these developments help us to see what’s happening outside, and on the other side they create opportunities for collaboration.

We are already collaborating with China on Earth science as well as Space science . For over two decades, we have been working on the Dragon program, under which hundreds of scientists from the two countries have been engaged in projects involving the use of Earth Observation satellite data for different applications, such as agriculture, forestry, pollution and disaster management. We use Chinese and European data and build datasets to gain expertise and publish that in peer reviewed journals. We also have cooperation on the infrastructure side. For instance, there is a project under which we work together on hardware. Recently, I received an offer from the head of the Chinese Space agency, co-signed by the Director General of Roscosmos, to join the International Lunar Research Station. So, China is open to partnership. We would certainly look into how we can best shape our future collaboration with China.

Can you tell us about the interaction between the Galileo program and China’s Baidu, which has now become an international system for navigation?

China was a partner in the Galileo program till about a decade ago, until this cooperation was finished and China decided to develop its own navigation program, Baidu. China has decided to build its independent system certainly for strategic reasons. Although this is not the case for Baidu, these systems can be made to work together. For instance, GPS and Galileo are very well intertwined. If you use a mobile phone, you would probably be using signals from both constellations. This creates increased accuracy for navigation signals. So, having more systems in place serves different purposes, from strategic to technological.

In the past, India has closely worked with European national Space agencies like DLR. At one point, India was using ERS’ SAR data, which helped it in developing its Radar Remote Sensing program. As ESA DG, do you have plans to rebuild a similar working relationship with India?

I am aware about the strong working relationship between India and Europe in the past. Unfortunately, it has reduced in the last few years, and I am not sure why, as I have not been involved in some of these aspects. I think it’s time that we look again into this relationship. India has enormous Space capabilities and has a lot to offer. Be it Earth Observation or Space exploration, we are very keen on the potential for future cooperation with India. We do have agreements in place under which India and ESA are working together, but there is a lot of room for strengthening the relationship and I will be looking into that.

There is a sentence in the Agenda saying that “the continent needs a new mission statement that focuses its Space excellence to propel society out of the current health, economic and climate crisis into a more sustainable, fairer and more resilient society”. How do you envisage ESA working with other stakeholders to accomplish that?

You have quoted a very important sentence. We want to use Space for the benefit of people. For instance, I know that India’s Space program is very strongly focused on the need of its people. Under ESA Agenda 2025, we want to focus on people, both in Europe and also globally to underline our global responsibility. That, of course, goes along with a number of other disciplines, from climate, security of people to the Covid crisis. You must have seen that we have established a dashboard on which we use satellite data to measure some of the key parameters linked to the current crisis, for example agricultural production, air quality or economic indicators. Once we get past the pandemic, people will be looking for new hopes, opportunities and investments, and Space is a perfect tool to offer all of that.

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