Europe Must Not Miss Out on the New Space Age

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

5 mins - 6 de Noviembre de 2023, 07:00

In September 2022, Ukraine launched six small submarine drones against Russian warships off the coast of Crimea. These vessels were being used to launch cruise missile attacks against Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure. As the drones neared their targets, they veered off course, leaving the Russian fleet unscathed. The reason the attack failed was not due to a fault with the submarines but because the satellites guiding them had been switched off. Unbeknown to Ukrainian commanders, Starlink’s owner Elon Musk had decided not to enable coverage within a certain distance of Crimea. 

The incident highlights the importance that space based capabilities are playing in the war in Ukraine. But it also shows the risks of monopolisation in space and critical military infrastructure being in the hands of a private individual. It is even more concerning when that individual is Elon Musk, who has parroted Kremlin disinformation and proposed a peace plan involving Ukraine giving up both swathes of territory and its ambitions to join NATO.  

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The war has a clear lesson for European leaders: our security is now dependent on our ability to reliably access and act in space. Space is the next great theatre of geopolitics. Over the last decade, the United States, China, Russia, and India, have recognised this and ramped up investments accordingly. If Europe does not do the same, there is a real danger that we will be left behind. When European space ministers meet this week in Sevilla, they must wake up to the scale of the challenge that we face. 

Earlier this year, I was part of a high-level working group organised by the European Space Agency on the future of human and robotic space flight. Our main conclusion was that maintaining the ability to act and access space is not only vital to Europe’s security but also our future prosperity. 

By 2040, the global space industry will be worth more than 1 trillion Euros. Europe’s space investment is just one-fifth that of the United States—and our exploration budget is barely one-fifteenth that of NASA’s. We need to vastly scale up public funding and stimulate private investments in the European space ecosystem. If we do not, we will see a brain drain of our best scientists and engineers. 

It is not only a question of investment. If scarce orbital resources are monopolised by a handful of companies, Europe will find itself shut out and entirely dependent on external providers. Europe must lead efforts to guarantee an open market in space, both to prevent undue consumption of limited orbital resources and ensure businesses can compete on a genuine level playing field. Europe has the tools to do this. On earth, the European Union uses access to its vast market to set global rules and standards. It should take the same approach in space.

Europe must also lead on environmental concerns in space. The universe maybe infinite but earth’s orbits are not. These should be treated like other shared global commons – with clear rules guarding their use and avoiding over consumption. This is an increasingly urgent question. Human activity in space is expanding at an unprecedented scale. In 2018, there were just 2,000 active satellites in orbit. By 2030, there could be 100,000. This is largely due to the launch of mega-constellations of commercial satellites by companies such as SpaceX and Amazon. 

Low-Earth orbits are becoming dangerously congested with larger and larger objects and increasing lethal debris. Both the European Space Agency and NASA have raised the alarm on the growing risk of collisions. New rules are badly needed to prevent risky behaviour. Ideally, these would be developed at the global level under the auspices of the United Nations. However, in the current geopolitical climate, consensus is impossible. 

It is time for Europe to lead. The first challenge is understanding the scale of the problem. This requires comprehensive modelling of the level of activity our orbits can safely sustain.  We took this approach for sea lanes and civilian air traffic, so why not do the same for space? Second, European and national regulators should use the power of Europe’s single market to ensure responsible behaviour. They should set clear conditions when granting market access to lower the risk of collisions, the creation of debris, and the undue consumption of limited orbital resources by a few mega-corporations from the United States. 

Ministers meeting in Sevilla will be central in the crafting of Europe’s upcoming space law. It is vital that this addresses the growing risks in our orbits. On earth, Europe has led the way on environmental issues. We must do the same in space. 

For too long, space has existed at the outer reaches of Europe’s political consciousness. It is time for that to change. European leaders must be bold, both to keep us secure and prosperous, but also to ensure a vital global resource is not wasted. If they are prepared to think big, Europe will reap the benefits of a new space age. If they fail to do so, the vast opportunities of space could be lost to Europe for generations to come. 
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