ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said Europe needed “a serious debate” on its future plans in space in order to maintain a role as a global leader. Credit: ESA/S. Corvaja

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency and the European Union will sign an agreement next week governing their work on joint projects, one that the agency says will allow ESA members who are not part of the EU to participate on those projects.

At a June 16 press conference, Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, said that, during the council’s two-day meeting that had just concluded, members unanimously approved a Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) that the agency had been in lengthy negotiations with the European Commission about.

“I think it’s really very, very good that now our relations with the EU are becoming much, much better,” she said. “We have good collaboration and there have been very good and constructive discussions when working to get this FFPA in place.”

Neither Rathsman nor Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, went into the details of the agreement. They noted a formal signing ceremony is scheduled for June 22 in Brussels during a “launch event” for the EU’s space program, where more details about the FFPA will be released. However, they said that the agreement will allow ESA members who are not part of the EU, including Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, to participate in at least some EU space programs.

Aschbacher said that the positions of those non-EU ESA members were accounted for in the FFPA negotiations so that they “are content with what we negotiated and feel that there is no disadvantage for them in the way the agreement is constructed.”

That is a particular concern for the United Kingdom, which exited the European Union at the end of last year. The agreement covering Britain’s exit from the EU allows it to continue to participate in the Copernicus Earth observation program, pending completion of various implementing agreements.

“The U.K. is a very important member state of ESA, and we will do everything to have the U.K. as a good partner in ESA and making sure that ESA remains an attractive place for the U.K. to invest,” he said. He added, however, that the final decision on allowing the United Kingdom to remain in Copernicus lies with the EU.

Invited to join ILRS

The press conference took place shortly after a session of the Global Space Exploration Conference 2021, or GLEX 2021, in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Chinese and Russian officials laid out their plans for a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Those officials said that ESA was one of the agencies they had been in discussions with about participating in the project.

At a press conference during GLEX 2021 June 15, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Rogozin, also singled out ESA as a potential participant in the program. “We are in negotiations with a number of countries,” he said through an interpreter in response to a question from SpaceNews about cooperation on ILRS. “I think, suffice it to say, that our key prospective partner in relation to this project is the European Space Agency.”

Asked about ESA’s role in the ILRS, Aschbacher suggested any discussions are not very far along. “I got a letter of invitation to join the International Lunar Research Station, both co-signed by Mr. Rogozin and the head of the China National Space Administration,” he said.

“We are discussing this matter with our member states,” he continued, with no decision about whether or how to participate in the project. “The offer is on the table. We will reflect with our member states how to respond. I’m not in a position today to give an answer.”

ESA is a major partner on the NASA-led Artemis lunar exploration program, providing contributions such as the service module for the Orion spacecraft and elements of the lunar Gateway. “We want to intensify all of the excellent cooperation we have with NASA,” he said later in the briefing.

Separate from lunar exploration, Aschbacher said ESA and NASA are developing a “strategic partnership” on Earth observation. That agreement could be signed when Aschbacher and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson meet in person in August at the Space Symposium in Colorado.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...