MANCHESTER, England — The European Union on May 30 took a step closer to guaranteeing a predictable government market for Europe’s future Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets and said it would consider financial support for Europe’s spaceport in South America.
Meeting in Brussels, the EU Competitiveness Council stressed European space autonomy at almost every turn in its final conclusions — for space situational awareness, satellite-based positioning, navigation and timing, Earth observation data storage and critical satellite components now purchased in the United States, Japan and elsewhere.
Identifying data storage as an element of European autonomy was new for EU ministers. European Commission officials for some time have expressed concerns that the de facto handing over of Cloud responsibilities to Amazon, Google and Microsoft may be detrimental to European interests in the long term.
In its recommendations, the council “invites the commission to explore the possibility of putting together a cost-effective, permanent data storage network system, where appropriate, utilizing relevant European Infrastructures.”
Tepid support for GovSatcom
The council appeared lukewarm in its support for a European Commission initiative called Governmental Satellite Communications, or GovSatcom, whose goal is to streamline Europe’s military satcom sector by coalescing demand to reduce overall cost.
Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain all have their own, independent military satcom assets. Efforts to join forces have met with limited success as each nation throws up “strategic autonomy” as a barrier to deeper cooperation.
The council, noting that the European External Action Service, the European Defense Agency and the European Space Agency are preparing a GovSatcom proposal for later this year, “stresses the need to thoroughly assess all possible impacts before issuing such an initiative, including the ongoing impact statement.”
Toward a guaranteed annual market in launch services
But it was in the launch-service sector that the EU ministers’ recommendations may have the biggest short-term impact.
European Commission officials in January indicated they were favorably disposed to a request made by Europe’s industrial rocket builders — Airbus Safran Launchers, prime contractor for the Ariane 6 rocket and now part of Ariane Group; Avio of Italy, prime contractor for the Vega-C rocket; and the Arianespace launch service provider, also part of Ariane Group — to guarantee a set number of satellite missions.
Industry is asking that the European Union and its executive commission, which is the biggest government user of launch services in Europe, commit to providing five satellites per year for Ariane 6, and two per year for Vega-C, between 2021 and 2025.
Meeting this commitment will require the EU and the commission to strike binding arrangements with organizations not under their control, including individual member states and the Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization.
The council asked the commission to “establish a mechanism that would aggregate demand by Union institutional customers for European launch services… to ensure cost-effective, affordable, reliable and autonomous access to space.”
The guarantee would be part of the European Commission’s next seven-year budget, starting in 2021. That budget’s general outlines are being negotiated starting now, despite the many unknowns related to Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Europe’s launcher industry has said that a binding government commitment would allow industry to forgo the annual cost-offsets now paid to Arianespace by the 22-nation European Space Agency, which amount to around $100 million.
EU financial support for Europe’s spaceport
The May 30 statement includes, for the first time, a statement opening the door to a possible financial contribution by the commission to the operation of the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s spaceport, located on French territory on the northeast coast of South America.
French Guiana is French territory. Most of its business activity, including launch operations, was shut down for six weeks this spring by a general strike that had wide popular support in demanding a multibillion-euro investment by France into French Guiana’s infrastructure and services — security, schools, hospitals and the like.
How much additional money will be invested by France over what period of time is still uncertain, but it seems clear that it will be more than in the past.
French government officials in the past have urged the European Commission to consider the spaceport as a critical infrastructure eligible for substantially more support from the EU than it receives today. Spaceport operations are financed mainly by France, and by the European Space Agency.
The Competitiveness Council asked the commission “to analyze… whether there are ways to provide appropriate support to European launcher-related infrastructure facilities where this is needed to meet EU policy objectives or needs, starting with a detailed impact analysis including funding and governance aspects.”