The European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing to decide on its future investments, which it intends to accelerate to maintain its international position weakened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and fierce competition in the launch market.
ESA will ask its 22 member states, whose space ministers are meeting in Paris on Tuesday and Wednesday, for a total contribution of €18.7 billion to fund its new programs over the next three years. A significant increase compared to the 14.5 billion euros decided at the last ministerial meeting in 2019.
“We have to invest more than ever, otherwise we’ll get out of the race,” said Josef Aschbacher, general director of the agency, which was founded in 1975, to the AFP news agency.
Against the backdrop of inflationary tensions and energy crises, it hopes to persuade its member countries to invest more (25% more on average) in launch vehicles, telecommunications, satellite navigation, earth observation, exploration or the sciences of the universe.
The challenge for the old continent: to increase its autonomy in access to space in order to assert its leadership on a world stage crushed by the United States and the rise of China. And where the competition has hardened with the so-called New Space Revolution, which sees an increase in private players, the American SpaceX is ahead.
Competition on micro launchers –
The main engine of the answer is the Ariane 6 rocket, whose postponement of the first flight originally planned for 2020 to the end of 2023 has disadvantaged European ambitions.
Faced with these delays and since the war in Ukraine without Russian Soyuz launchers, ESA was forced to turn to SpaceX to launch two science missions.
“The first flight and the operation of Ariane 6 are our priority,” assures the head of ESA, who has the support of the Europeans in this program.
Discussions about the future launchers that will replace Ariane 6 and its “little sister” Vega C promise to get more tense: an intra-European race between France, Germany and Italy begins for the mini-rockets, which are more flexible than heavy launchers, to get in touch with Elon Musk’s company.
France wants to remain one of the biggest donors alongside Germany, which had become the first contributor to ESA at the 2019 Ministerial Conference (3.3 billion versus 2.7 billion for France).
This time, “no one wants to do more or less than Germany,” said Philippe Baptiste, president of the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), without specifying the height of the envelope Paris would put on the table. “The French contribution will be measured against the investment benchmark of 9 billion euros” announced in September by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne over a three-year period, which includes in particular defense loans, he says.
– Mobilization around the climate
Among the biggest budgets under discussion is that for Earth observation instruments, including the Copernicus service, which will make it possible to measure the effects of global warming. Mr. Baptiste predicts “an extremely strong mobilization” of the states on this point.
A survey by Harris Interactive and Toluna shows that almost nine out of ten European citizens “would like to see more use of space to monitor and reduce the effects of climate change,” argues Josef Aschbacher.
ESA’s less-than-consensual contribution to the European Union’s future satellite constellation, Iris, is expected to secure the internet and its communications throughout the EU from 2027. The €6 billion project is largely funded by the EU, which does not have the same scope as the ESA (which includes the UK, for example). If the ESA-EU coupling fails, Brussels could set up its own space agency.
On the exploration side, ESA will try to rescue ExoMars, which was crushed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and will have to wait until 2028 to lift off. His rover Rosalind Franklin, which was to pierce the Martian soil in search of signs of extraterrestrial life, was to be dropped there with a Russian lander. To complete this emblematic mission, which has already cost 1.8 billion euros, a budget extension is requested.
Europe’s ability to have its own manned flight, another key element of its sovereignty, is being discussed but no decision made at this point.
Once its budget is approved, ESA will present its new astronaut grant: between 4 and 6 lucky ones, of which at least one should be French.