Space 2050, a European roadmap challenge

Space policy

Europe, and the Member States, have achieved many successes in space with renowned, innovative technology and space explorations. The Rosetta Mission for observation and meteorology, Meteosat for telecommunication, and launch systems. Europe detains the second larger public budget for space in the world. Between the period 2014-2020 the EU has invested 12 billion in the space flagship programmes, Galileo and Copernicus, expecting these investments to spin EU market opportunities. Retrieving from the 2016 Space Strategy for Europe, in 10-15 years, the EU will be the largest institutional customer for launch services in Europe, with 18 satellites currently in orbit and over 30 planned.

The European Commission’s 2016 Space Strategy set out four objectives: Maximise the benefits of space for society and the EU economy; Ensure a globally competitive and innovative European space sector; Reinforce Europe’s autonomy in accessing space in a safe and secure environment; Strengthen Europe’s role as a global actor and promoting international cooperation.

Right now, the European space sector for applications and technologies is changing, challenged by new disruptive technologies and the entrance on the EU market of private space players. ESA and Member States can take full advantage of this situation by reinforcing the EU Internal Market and competitiveness.

Moving forward to a longer-term vision, 2050 is going to be the year in which humans will fly to the Moon, the European Union will reach carbon neutrality and convert into a zero-emission pollution continent. Allegedly. The planet is reclaiming what it is his, young generations are taking over the streets to make their voices heard and catching up with delays on innovation and technologies is the new let motive of making industries working together towards a common European objective.

Therefore, a 2050 European vision can be challenging, yet necessary: economic power established countries like China, on one hand, and the United States on the other, compress Europe obliging her to react from years of impasse.  The new Directorates General incorporated might be a reaction to this and could make Europe, through big efforts and developments, a fundamental player for international relations in the years to come. And policies like internal market, innovation, economy, foreign relations, defence and space, can have room to develop a long-term strategy.

More space in 2050?

A space ambition is and will continue to be pursued both at European and at single Member states level. The EU wants to influence and power its presence in the outer space and so do China, Russia and the United States. ESA hopes by starting to mine the Moon by 2025, NASA by launching a human and robotic exploration. In a more restricted time-lapse, Italy and China have signed an agreement to launch a satellite to study earthquakes, so that Turin will host the first Chinese Space Station, the Tiangong-3.

However, a space ambition is more effective when cooperation happens. The European Space Agency next Ministerial Council, Space 19+, , will take place in Sevilla, Spain (27-28 November 2019). This meeting is to secure the budget for the following years that the Member States will finance for the different ESA activities.  ESA has already defined four thematic areas, the so-called programmatic pillars, that will be tackled at the Ministerial Council, among others:

Science and exploration: a 6b€ subscription package is recommended for scientific missions, ATHENA and Science LISA; and in explorations to the Lunar and Mars initiatives.

Space safety and security: an overall 1.9b€ subscription package is recommended for a series of new safety activities, such as In-Orbit-Servicing (IOS) demonstrations missions (in both LEO and GEO), a planetary defence demonstration mission, and a space weather mission. The package will also include space security and safety applications.

Enabling and support: an overall 3.7b€ subscription package is recommended, with a focus on digitalization of infrastructure and processes. Launchers, operations and technology developments of future activities. Development of new means of space transportation (such as Ariane 6 and Vega C, already in use).

Applications: an overall 4.4b€ subscription package is recommended. It should encompass a demonstration mission of space-based flexible digital VHTS telecommunication services in an integrated multi-technology (including in particular optical) 5G perspective, and in Earth observation an increased budget for Copernicus development.

If these are the premises for the coming years, we can only imagine what they will be in 2050.

As future shines ahead of us, an important question arise: what will be the future of the European Space Agency? Will it depend also by the future of the European Union itself and by the will of the States to subsidize the Agency?

The answer is yes. The European Union is expected to grow to 33 Member State by 2050. Space is too attractive to develop new technologies and benefit from new discoveries. It is an important defence tool and states do not give it up easily when it concerns the sovereignty of a state.

And clearly, ESA,  will not be unprepared for this task: to envision a 2050 future of the space, ESA has called for an open consultation, “Voyage 2050”, for the 2035–2050 time frame, to consult with Europe’s science community to plan the future of its science programme and the long-term planning of the future of space policy in the EU.

Objective of “Voyage 2050”, is to identify the scientific themes for the next three cornerstones missions “(i.e. those that will fly in the 2035–2050 period), to gather recommendations on affordable and scientifically compelling areas for medium-sized (M-class) missions – and possibly smaller missions – and to help in defining a strategic view for future technology developments, also beyond 2050”.

A white paper submitted by the scientific team of the American University Cornelius, recommend the “European Space Agency plays a proactive role in developing a global collaborative effort to construct a large high-contrast imaging space telescope, e.g. as currently under study by NASA. […] We provide an overview of relevant European expertise, and advocate ESA to start a technology development program towards detecting life outside the Solar system.”

At the same time, the European Union will not find itself unprepared: for 2050 it will have fostered R&D and create specific educational and innovative programs, and space will affect even more our day-to-day life. Other space powers will continue to secure their EU access to space market, potentially adding new opponents leverage. The applications market will be a relevant three players’ combination: telecommunication, earth observation and navigation. This will make the sustainability transports sector increase with cars becoming technology platforms linking data to other services, embedded with technology and remote monitoring and be automatically tracked from space. This will revolutionize the auto, insurance industry and will foster location-based services. Embedded intelligence may evolve creating driverless cars. The changes are also enabled by tremendous progress in location-based services, information processing & satellite technology, Galileo.

Technological adaptation in security and defence will develop very fast, even though Europe is not fully exploiting the power of space for independent decision-making and action, due to a limited defence-related space programmes. However, the creation of Nonlethal, Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), space and cyber technologies will be available to a wide variety of actors, both state and non-state. A Convention will be created to regulate the use and clarify the legal status of this weapons, such as accountability, privacy, and eventual violations of the Geneva Convention.

Future looking concepts such as providing energy from space via space-based solar power plants can enter the energy market, possibly complementing the intermittency of terrestrial renewable power sources.

Along the same lines, science and innovation have been fostering and supporting world leading scientific research; and the explorations of the options to generate energy in Earth orbits for terrestrial use. While most of these publications can be considered as optimistic regarding their time frame, the period to 2050 will likely see such applications emerging.

Finally, the use of Copernicus, the space programme for the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, will be of extreme need and surely will go through further developments in order to face world’s population growth expectation of 9.7 billion by 2050, causing a need to increase food production, reduce environmental distress, consistent urbanization and consequent climate change disasters. On the period 2000-2013, EUR 3.2 B were invested into the programme, following a EUR 5 B injection in 2014-2020 The importance of this tool will establish the following investments.

To conclude, the space industry is accelerating fast with a deep transformation in design and development, production, for both space infrastructure and transportation. In this context, by 2050, the European space industry will have a multi-fold public role of both regulator and R&D to contribute to the game change and to improve competitiveness technology independence.


White paper for ESA Vojage 2050; 24 pages Earth and Planetary Astrophyiscs (astro-ph.EP) arXiv:1908.01803 [astro-ph.EP]

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