European ministers address a sharp increase in space funding

PARIS, Nov 22 (Reuters) – European ministers will meet in Paris to negotiate a more than 25% increase in space funding over the next three years as Europe seeks to maintain leadership in Earth observation, expand navigation services and continue to be a key exploration partner.

The European Space Agency is asking its 22 countries to back a budget of €18.7bn for 2023-25, up from €14.5bn at its last triennial summit, in 2019, against a backdrop of pressure on public finances and the war in Ukraine.

“There are many points of view in the member states… and the will to find the way forward,” said Anna Rathsman, who chairs the agency’s council, on the eve of the November 22-23 talks.

Days after the uncrewed launch of NASA’s new moon rocket carrying a European service module, the Paris meeting will review plans for a new logistics lander for the moon, the Argonaut.

Other initiatives include extending Europe’s global navigation system to low-Earth orbit and launching a new satellite mission, Harmony, to expand climate research.

Ministers will seek to close a narrow funding gap for Ariane 6 rockets and discuss the future of emerging microlaunchers.

ESA nations will also discuss a “zero waste” approach to space at a time when the Ukraine conflict has highlighted the rapid expansion of constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink.

In a recent interview, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher urged swift global action to address congestion in low-Earth orbit, including a ban on anti-satellite weapons tests.

Though rare, such tests have fueled concerns about the militarization of space, which sits uncomfortably alongside commercial and other peaceful uses of space, without which, Aschbacher told Reuters, “society would fall apart.”

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Even without such threats, the sheer number of satellites and debris fragments in low-Earth orbit is a challenge.

“There will be accidents; this is to be expected… The question is how much energy is put into avoiding accidents,” Aschbacher said.

“It’s everyone’s problem, I think first and foremost for those who operate large constellations… This is an issue that needs to be addressed globally with everyone involved.”

MARKETING OF SPACES

Aschbacher also highlighted a push to ensure that by 2030 all satellites are put into orbit sustainably, with a plan to dispose of them safely at the end of their useful lives.

“If you take something into a national park, you have to get it out in terms of trash. I look at orbits in a similar way; if we put a satellite in, we have to guarantee that we’ll get it out.”

Europe is aiming to improve its share of the commercialization of space, dominated by US companies such as SpaceX.

Private investment in space skyrocketed 86% between 2017 and 2021 globally, but only 14% in Europe.

European companies have not raised as much capital as in the United States, where public agencies often allow companies to sign long-term contracts and attract more private partners, according to the European Institute for Space Policy.

While focused on public budgets, the ESA says it has made some 18 deals with venture capital firms to promote the space.

“It’s not a shortage of ideas, it’s a shortage of funds to move commercialization forward,” Aschbacher said.

Reporting by Tim Hepher; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore and Bradley Perrett

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