Op-ed | In space, no one is powerful enough to boldly go alone

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This op-ed was originally published in the April 9, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Europe is getting stronger and stronger as a global player in space and our two flagship programs, Galileo and Copernicus, are performing even better than we expected. In October 2016, we adopted a space strategy which set the European vision on space. Space matters in Europe and it is a top political priority. But the European Union’s efforts to achieve autonomy in space don’t mean we act in isolation.

During the extreme hurricane season experienced by the United States in 2017, the EU’s Earth-observation program Copernicus turned out to be extremely useful and cooperation between the EU and U.S. went very well thanks to our agreement on data exchange signed in October 2015. The U.S. activated Copernicus’ emergency services as Hurricane Harvey approached Texas in August 2017. In the next few hours, the Copernicus team provided free, real-time, all-weather radar satellite images of the affected areas. They enabled first responders and rescue management to see exactly where urgent help was needed. As the last of Harvey’s impact maps were being delivered, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s attention had to quickly turn into Hurricane Irma. U.S. authorities asked again to activate Copernicus’ services for rapid mapping of the hurricane, which would go on to hit Florida. Data sharing again went very well.

Copernicus satellites offer the most accurate climate and environmental data 24/7. Its emergency services were activated four times in 2017 in the U.S. Moreover, our cooperation on sharing of data from Copernicus and U.S. systems allows various science centers in the U.S. and Europe to test, check and compare their weather modelling programs. That’s one of the areas where competition is useful for all players.

But there is more to Copernicus, which is the most comprehensive Earth-observation program in the world today. Copernicus satellites, which make the EU one of the biggest data providers in the world, provide information on temperature variation, the state of forests, and sea currents and waves. Copernicus data is already used by thousands of entities to help farmers decide when to plant or harvest, to mitigate the erosion of our coasts, to fight deforestation. NOAA and NASA scientists already use Copernicus data to detect and monitor oil spills, harmful algae, measure wave heights, wind speeds and sea ice. Sharing EU and U.S. space data can help monitor air pollution in our cities and climate change.

The Sentinel-2B satellite launched in March 2017 is part of Europe’s Copernicus system of Earth-observation satellites. Credit: Airbus
The Sentinel-2B satellite launched in March 2017 is part of Europe’s Copernicus system of Earth-observation satellites. Credit: Airbus

It’s worth highlighting here that we, in the EU, have decided to make all Copernicus data and information available globally, in a full, free and open policy. In May 2018, we will launch the Copernicus DIAS (Data and Information Access Service) program, in which several commercial consortia set up platforms to make access to Copernicus’ data far easier for the business community. Europe wants to make itself an attractive place for public and private investors, including Americans, who want to invest in space startups and other businesses. Venture capital investment will be incentivized in Europe.

Europe is making great progress in satellite navigation. The United States was a pioneer in the field with its Global Positioning System (GPS) for dual military and civil use. The EU satellite navigation system Galileo is managed by civilians and has provided data for civilian needs since 2016.

Four more satellites were successfully launched last year bringing the total to 22. We plan to launch four more satellites in the second half of 2018, heading towards full operational capacity in 2020. I am fully convinced that it will provide the most precise navigation in the world.

Galileo is making strides in the market. About 75 million Galileo-ready mobile phones were sold last year and 95 percent of chipsets on the market are Galileo compatible. Major manufacturers such as Apple, Google, Samsung and Sony now offer Galileo-enabled products. Users don’t have to be even aware their devices can use both GPS and Galileo signals. Nevertheless, users are to enjoy much better geo-positioning thanks to combined signals from U.S. and EU satellites.

We still need to conclude our negotiations with the U.S., who is keen to access full Galileo services in the robust and encrypted Public Regulated Service signal, which will boost the resiliency of GPS for security use by the U.S. all over the world. One European goal for Galileo is its permanent complementarity with GPS and other navigation systems developed by other countries at present and in the future.

Galileo, Europe’s constellation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites, currently consists of 22 spacecraft with four more launching this year. Credit: ESA
Galileo, Europe’s constellation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites, currently consists of 22 spacecraft with four more launching this year. Credit: ESA

The use of data provided by two independent systems, Galileo and GPS, will increase the resilience of satellite navigation, banking applications, healthcare applications and numerous others thanks to satellite positioning data. In the near future, an emergency system based on Galileo should be able to inform distressed users that their emergency signals have been received. A castaway would get a sign that rescue responders are on their way. The combination of GPS and Galileo data makes positioning more reliable and accurate. Moreover, Galileo data will be improving vertical positioning, which might be crucial in finding the exact floor where an ill user is calling from for medical help. As free marketers, we obviously trust that innovation and free competition on new ideas how to use combined GPS and Galileo data will drive business on both sides of the Atlantic.

We also intend to strengthen the security and defense dimension of both Galileo and Copernicus. This includes the capabilities to track space debris, protect critical infrastructures, and ensure secure satellite communication.

Finally, on space exploration and satellite navigation the European Space Agency — which is composed mainly of EU member countries — cooperates with NASA on the International Space Station, telescopes and robotic space missions. ESA provides the service module for the future Orion capsule and will launch the James Webb Space Telescope. ESA is also a crucial driver in space research funded by the European Union. The EU, the European Space Agency and the EU member states’ national financing together make up the second biggest space budget in the world.

To give a recent example of successful collaboration between the EU and the U.S., the Belgian Michaël Gillon led the international team which discovered the planetary system TRAPPIST-1 in February 2018. While Gillon and his colleagues are looking for new planets using the NASA and European telescopes TRAPPIST and SPECULOOS, he has been supported by EU money. The discovery came from cooperation between Americans and Europeans. In space, no one is powerful enough to boldly go alone.


Elżbieta Bieńkowska is the European Union Commissioner for Internal Market and Industry.