Space Europe wants to increase its budget to stay in the race
The European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing to decide on its future investments, which it wants to speed up in order to maintain an international ranking weakened by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the intense competition in the launch market.
ESA will ask its 22 member states, whose space ministers meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in Paris, for a total contribution of 18.7 billion euros to finance its new programs over the next three years. A clear increase compared to the 14.5 billion euros voted at the previous ministerial meeting, in 2019.
“More than ever, we must increase our investments, otherwise we will be out of the race,” Josef Aschbacher, director-general of the agency founded in 1975, told AFP.
In a context of inflationary tension and energy crisis, it hopes to convince its member countries to invest more (25% more than usual) to fund launchers, telecommunications, satellite navigation, Earth observation, exploration or science of the Universe.
The challenge for the Old Continent: increase its autonomy in access to space to maintain its leadership in a world stage crushed by the United States and the rise of China. And where competition has hardened in the so-called New Space revolution, which has seen the rise of private players, American SpaceX is leading the way.
– Competition among micro-launchers –
The main response engine, the Ariane 6 rocket, whose postponement to the end of 2023 of the inaugural flight originally planned for 2020 has punished Europe’s ambitions.
Faced with these delays, and deprived since the war in Ukraine of Russian Soyuz launchers, ESA was forced to turn to SpaceX to launch two scientific missions.
“The first flight and the operation of Ariane 6 is our priority”, assured the ESA boss, who has the support of the Europeans in this program.
Discussions on future launchers, which will replace Ariane 6 and its “little sister” Vega C, promise to be even more tense: an intra-European race between France, Germany and Italy has been launched around mini-rockets that are more flexible than heavy launchers. , to catch up with Elon Musk’s company.
France aims to remain one of the largest funders in Germany, which at the 2019 ministerial conference became the first contributor to the ESA (3.3 billion compared to 2.7 billion for France).
This time, “no one intends to do more or less than Germany”, said Philippe Baptiste, president of the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), without specifying the amount of the envelope that Paris will put on the table. “The French contribution is measured by an investment measure of 9 billion euros” over three years announced in September by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, and which includes specific credits for Defense, he said.
– Mobilization around climate –
Among the largest budgets discussed: Earth observation tools, including the Copernicus service, which makes it possible to measure the impact of global warming. Mr. Baptiste predicted “a very strong mobilization” of States on this point.
A poll by Harris Interactive-Toluna shows that almost nine out of ten European citizens “want to see space used even more to monitor and reduce the effects of climate change”, argued Josef Aschbacher.
Less agreed upon, ESA’s contribution to the European Union’s future constellation of satellites, Iris, aims to secure the Internet and its communications throughout the EU territory from 2027. The project, worth 6 billion euros, is largely funded by the EU, which does not have the same scope as the ESA (which includes the United Kingdom for example). If the ESA-EU coupling fails, Brussels could create its own space agency.
On the exploration side, ESA will try to save ExoMars, which was damaged in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and will have to wait until 2028 to fly. Its Rosalind Franklin rover, designed to drill into the Martian soil in search of traces of extraterrestrial life, is to be deposited there with a Russian lander. A budget extension will be requested to finish this emblematic mission which already costs 1.8 billion euros.
The European ability to have its own manned flight, another key element of its sovereignty, will be discussed, but no decision has been made at this stage.
As soon as its budget is adopted, ESA will present its new promotion of astronauts: between 4 and 6 lucky ones, at least one of whom must be French.