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European space: Balancing cooperation with competition

by Alex Hayes
19th May 21 8:55 am

The global space industry has reached a new golden era, spurred by constant academic and technical innovation from both government and private entities.

Space has become an industry, more so than a scientific endeavour. As a result, it has become subject to the fickle whims of politics and business, which can be overbearing to the point of stifling in the worst of cases.

Brexit was a wrench in the system; there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA). Now that the dust has somewhat settled on that matter, it seems both entities are going full-steam ahead with new projects and grants, together and independently.

ESA Launches Rockets

Europe is determined to be a significant player in space; recently, the ESA made it clear that the commercialisation of space is a priority for them. These comments came as the ESA made history sending a European astronaut to join a commercial NASA-SpaceX mission to space for the first time.

Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), said on RFI, “This flight is significant because it shows that commercial space partners like SpaceX can work together with public institutions like NASA and the ESA. I would call it, for Europe at least, the initiation of the commercialisation of space,”

Europe is embracing domestic rocket launches. On April 28, 2021, ESA successfully launched their flagship rocket, which deployed six commercial satellites into orbit from French Guiana. Regarding who was involved in the payloads, their customers included the United States, France, and Norway. French launch services firm Arianespace oversee all Ariane 5 and Vega launches.

However, some concerns over the future of the Vega projects come as the ESA calls upon Rocket Factory Augsburg AG, a subsidiary of German-based multi-tech firm OHB SE. The firm has been commissioned to “study the future of the European space transportation sector.”

Reportedly, the ESA is looking at the big picture and wish to futureproof themselves beyond the Vega-C and Ariane 6 projects. According to Marco Fuchs, CEO of OHB SE, the intent is to discover new “space transportation systems and solutions which private initiatives can propose,” which he hopes will make Europe an attractive partner in the future of space transport.

At the same time, these activities may seem as though the ESA is considering the Ariane and Vega rockets to be something of an afterthought. However, assigning the task to Rocket Factory does not envision any serious changes shortly. Reportedly, Airane 6 and Vega-C rockets have received quite a large order, which will see these rocket classes serving clients from 2023 and onwards as they’ll be instrumental in the EU’s ongoing Earth observation programme Copernicus.

The Vega has remained a vital asset for the ESA. It allows for lower-cost launch opportunities for smaller payloads that would have otherwise required more expensive and heavier-class rockets that don’t quite fit the bill to deliver payloads into higher orbits. But with grants now given to German Rocket Factory who are determined to develop a low-cost launching solution, the tension of competition in the area is growing.

British Collaborations

Competitive spirit tends to spur industries to greater heights, and in the instance of space, so is collaboration. Regardless of the current political landscape, U.K. space firms are still in receipt of funding from the ESA.

Skyrora and Orbex are two such firms that are leading the U.K.’s rocket launch ambitions. The firms are presently developing rockets and spaceports in Scotland so that the UK can also become a competitor in commercial space and satellite launches.

The U.K. is set for its first-ever vertical rocket launch, and that effort hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to reports, the ESA awarded both Orbex and Skyrora a combined sum of $12.35 million to support the development of competing microlaunchers. Regarding the intent of the ESA, it’s reported that this funding comes as part of Boost!. This ESA programme aims to foster new commercial space transportation services and create high skilled jobs in the U.K. and EU.

It remains to be seen whether no specific conditions applied, like the need to have or establish an office in Europe (considering the part about creating high skilled jobs in the EU). Or does ESA expect that the UK-based companies will conduct launches from European spaceports rather than from British, and so Europe will profit?

Why Would ESA Support Competition?

With the billions of dollars of capital flowing through the space industry, it seems like the question has a relatively simple answer. But going forward, it’s going to be interesting to see who gets priority when it comes to bidding for future projects and programs.

It could be argued that the ESA is targeting UK-based firms and spaceports as they are anticipated to begin launching in 2022. Furthermore, the U.K. space effort is also backed by U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, and the ESAs involvement by proxy of Skyrora and Orbex gives them a great position.

However, the Vega-C/Ariane 6 rockets are still the star players of the ESA, and EU-based firms such as Rocket Factory Augsburg AG may be a favourable choice due to geography or the outcomes of the OHB SE’s future study.

Moreover, of the Boost! funding offered by the ESA, a majority was offered to Scotland-headquartered Orbex, which is likely because they also have a presence in Copenhagen and Munich. Reportedly, a significant share of that money will be going to a Spanish firm called Elecnor Deimos, who will be providing tech for the microlauncher project.

Clear Skies

The ESA has big plans and seems to be extending its influence and funds as far as they can to meet their long-term views.

There may be concerns that the business relationship between the U.K. and EU could prove more political than profitable for all. Yet, even if the ESA favoured EU-based companies for launches than the U.K., they’re still providing the U.K. with funds to develop other technologies. But it could be questioned if the U.K. receives all support, they could from ESA, considering the amount of funds they invest in European space effort.

It’s safe to assume that the U.K. is set to benefit from this. Yet, until the rockets are launched, it’s anyone’s guess as to who the winners and losers are. One thing is clear, though. The one who manages to start commercial launches from Europe earlier would win against its competitors. But even now, it’s clear that ESA is not going to rely on the U.K. in the matter.

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