Draft European Space Policy Cites ‘Imbalanced’ Global Space Market

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The European Commission has issued a first draft of a future European space policy that suggests the commission will seek unspecified ways of redressing what it says is an imbalance in the global space market due to heavy government investment and protectionism in the United States and Russia.

“The absence of a level playing field with regard to foreign competitors which benefit from important and protected institutional markets — the United States, Russia — is critical and needs consideration,” the commission says in the document, “European Space Policy-Preliminary Elements,” issued May 23.

More broadly, the policy attempts to define how the commission, the executive arm of the 25-nation European Union, will deal with the European Space Agency (ESA), individual nations’ space agencies and the global space marketplace.

The document will be presented to a June 7 meeting in Luxembourg of commission and ESA government representatives. Following input from individual nations, a final policy is expected to be approved by ESA and commission representatives by late November.

The initial draft suggests reforms the commission would like to see in Europe’s space sector but is careful not to offend any of the organizations that might be upset by the proposed changes.

For example, the commission notes that national governments maintain separate space agencies that have their own data interfaces that are not harmonized with others in Europe. It also suggests that spending by these agencies often overlaps, wasting valuable resources.

“Complementarity of their activities has to be ensured,” the commission says. “Europe will therefore need to optimize its governance scenario for space. The limits on public financing require the consolidation of financial resources.”

But the commission stops short of calling for more centralization of space spending in Europe, saying only that a network of specialized centers should be created, each with distinct roles.

Similarly, the commission stresses that ESA’s policy of distributing contracts throughout Europe based on which government is paying how much — a policy called geographic return — needs to be reconsidered. Nonetheless, it does not suggest any new funding scheme.

ESA officials for years have tried to loosen the grip of geographic return on their programs, only to run into opposition from individual governments that threaten to withhold support for the agency unless their domestic industries are guaranteed ESA work.

The commission does not endorse geographic return and has tried to reduce its impact on the one big program it is co-financing with ESA, the Galileo satellite navigation project.

ESA and the commission have come to a general agreement that overall space policy will be set by the commission, and certain activities that have clearly defined constituencies — navigation, Earth observation and telecommunications — will be backed by commission funding.

ESA will remain in charge of space science and space exploration initiatives, although even these may win some commission backing on occasion. ESA also will be the technology-implementation arm of the commission and will manage development contracts on the commission’s behalf.

The commission’s role in space policy will in part be a function of its financial investment.

The Framework Program on Research, covering 2007-2013, will be a principal source of commission funding for space programs. However, the level of funding that European Union governments will devote to this program will not be determined until later this year. The commission in April proposed spending about 4 billion euros ($5 billion) on space and security programs for the period.

The commission’s draft policy reaffirms that Galileo and the emerging Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programs are its two top priorities. In addition, it says satellite telecommunications, including mobile broadband systems for government use, is a third area of interest.