Europe in Space: Extravaganza or a Long-term Investment?

What’s going to happen with the Greek debt, one-two-three seats of the European Parliament, Luxleaks, 100 days of the new European Commission, the British referendum … When we’re focusing so much on ourselves, it’s time to take a look from beyond. So I decided to take you on a space adventure today and take a look at  what the Europeans are doing up there. In fact, I was reminded of this specific EU policy by the former President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, who wrote his commentary on the EU space policy in this week’s Parliament Magazine. So, what is out there of Europe’s and how can we use it to make our lives on Earth easier? Why would Europeans need a common space policy? Is the money put into joining forces in explorations of space well invested? Let’s see. Please, fasten your seat belts. Take off in 5-4-3-2-1 …

Hektor - francoska podgana je verjetno prvi Evropejec, ki se je podal v vesolje. Foto:ŠM
Hector – this French rat was probably the first European to go to space. Photo:ŠM


One of the best lecturers I’ve ever listened to, and he taught EU law at the College of Europe (some of our readers will know who I’m thinking of), in one of his lectures (I think it was a lecture on the competences of the Union after the Lisbon Treaty) just by the way mentioned the EU space policy. He said that, as a lawyer, he considers the European space policy as a kind of a hobby. We could probably say the same for the EU leaders and their relationship to the EU space policy, which they seem to deal with “by the way” when there’s a bit of free time, when they talk about technological advances, research and the space tourism ideas of the Virgin Galactic.

In the Lisbon Treaty, the space policy is defined as the policy domain for which the competences are assigned to the Member States. At the same time it is referred to in the articles that relate to research and technology. Article 189 states that “the Union shall draw up a European space policy. To this end, it may promote joint initiatives, support research and technological development and coordinate the efforts needed for the exploration and exploitation of space“. It is clear that space is the domain of the Member States and their willingness to cooperate.


At a time when austerity measures seem to be the key to survival, it is not a surprise that space policy could be in danger. However, it would be particularly dangerous to ignore the space policy, especially as this would mean ignoring a nearly 90 billion worth global market, which annually grows by 7%. Space is also one of those sectors that can significantly contribute to economic growth and jobs. In addition, Europeans are becoming increasingly dependent on systems that are “placed” in the universe. And if we figure out how to read the data and use it to our benefit, we can do a lot for the environment, development, climate change, our security and defense, and innovation in general, underlines the European Commission.


So what have we Europeans done so far about space? The European Union recognizes that space systems and technologies are vital to the daily lives of Europeans and the operation of our businesses. From telecommunications, television and weather forecasts, to the financial system.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is not a part of the EU architecture but works very closely with the EU in all its projects. The ESA currently has 20 Member States (majority of EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and Canada) and four participating countries (including Slovenia). Its headquarters are located in Paris and its offices are in in Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, Netherlands and Belgium. ESA’s mission is to “develop a European Space Programme and implement it” (Source: ESA). These programmess are designed with the purpose of carrying out research about the Earth, the universe and the solar system, to develop satellite technology and services and support European space industry.

Vir: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

In this context, two important programmes were developed: Galileo and Copernicus. The Galileo programme is the European satellite navigation programme which will soon make it possible for Europeans to determine our location (accurate by a meter) using European satellites. Galileo will be inter-operable with the American GPS and Russian Glonass systems, but will serve solely for civilian navigation. It will provide us with precise locations even in the most hostile conditions. In 2011 and 2012 four satellites of the Galileo system were sent into space and they will serve as the core of the system. The entire system will consist of 30 satellites (27 operational and 3 active reserves), which will be circulating 23,222 km above the Earth.

The Copernicus programme is so far the most ambitious and comprehensive program of Earth observation from space, lead by the European Union in cooperation with the ESA. The latter is developing a family of satellites that are adapted for the Copernicus mission and will monitor the weather, take day and night laser images, observe the oceans, atmosphere, services on Earth, polar orbit position and climate. This data will not serve only for research purposes, but will be used in the future among other things also for the purposes of fisheries and agriculture (where are our fish, where and what to plant etc.), mitigation of climate change, global warming and pollution.

All programmes and measures can, in addition to scientific and technological advantages, also bring business opportunities for the development of European companies in the aerospace sector. These are mostly highly innovative companies that will in future employ more and more well-educated young Europeans.

Satelit evropskega sistema Galileo. Vir: ec.
European satellite of the Galileo system Source: ec.


Many Hollywood films have shown what happens when matter in space explodes, or if two satellites/spacecrafts collide. But did you know that the debris of old satellites can even interrupt your mobile phone signal? Due to collisions or difficult maneuvers European satellite operators annually lose about 140 million Euros and around 600,000 objects larger than 1cm are currently orbiting the Earth, among them at least 16,000 larger than 10cm. While the former can already damage some important components of a satellite, the latter may destroy it completely if they collide. Likewise, damage from space debris can also occur on Earth, if a particle gets into the atmosphere. Therefore, the European Commission has drafted a new program that aims to bringing together the capacities of Member States in the field of waste management controls in space.  This very programme might be the key to ensuring that our lights don’t go out or our mobile networks don’t crash in the future.


Space policy is probably one of the areas where cooperation between European countries should be obvious. Compared to space, countries probably feel helpless on their own. At the same time, the United States have gained a kind of privilege to space already in the previous century. Europeans need to see beyond the everyday discussions on the financial and economic matters and invest more into the bigger picture – our common venture for research, exploration and exploitation of Space.

If the European Union, in cooperation with ESA, decides to invest in research of space and space systems and technologies, future benefits for Europeans can be vast. The Member States should therefore join forces and efforts (and funds) to offer us a safer future and a healthy planet.

The importance of space research is highlighted in the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020. And it is precisely this kind of research that will lead us to important discoveries about our past and offer us insights for making a better future. Because this kind of research will focus on many aspects. From how the human body works in space and what is going on in our brain to knowing how many schools of tuna we have left in our seas, where and when can we expect the next tsunami and much more. It is our responsibility then to understand the information and use it for the common good.


Avtor: Špela Majcen Marušič

I am a Slovenian EU affairs analyst, proud member of the Charles Darwin promotion at the College of Europe with experience in the European Parliament and the UN Refugee Agency. I am a young mum to a clever and adorable baby girl and I believe that a kinder world can be created through cooperation and understanding. On Twitter as @SpelaMa on Instagram as @spela_ma.

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