ESA pursuing European space summit to discuss new flagship space programs

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COLORADO SPRINGS —The head of the European Space Agency says plans are moving forward to host a European space summit early next year to discuss proposals for new major space initiatives.

In an interview during the 36th Space Symposium, Josef Aschbacher said that summit, which he proposed shortly after becoming ESA director general in March, is expected to take place by next spring. France will host the event as the country will have both the co-presidency of ESA as well as the presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2022.

“France is in a very good position to invite people to and host such a summit,” he said. The summit would likely take place before the French presidential elections in April.

The summit would host ministers from ESA and EU member states, and possibly some heads of state as well. “This is a very important moment where, I hope, we have a discussion on the ambition of Europe in space,” he said.

Those discussions will include concepts for new flagship space programs for Europe to pursue. If those concepts win support for the summit, they could be included in the next ESA ministerial meeting in late 2022.

The EU is already pursuing a new flagship program for secure connectivity that would be in addition to the existing Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programs. Aschbacher, though, said he’s interested in other proposals as well, such as developing a human spaceflight capability Europe currently lacks.

“Europe does not have the capability today to launch its own astronauts on its own rockets with its own capsules,” he said. “India will soon have its own capability and it’s quite surprising that Europe does not.”

Other options for flagship programs include quantum communications and support for Europe’s “Green Deal” effort to become carbon-neutral by 2050. “We would like to see how space can contribute to accomplish this,such as through enhanced Earth observation or the development of a “digital twin” of Earth to model the impacts of policies and technologies on the climate.

One obstacle to winning support for any flagship concepts at the summit will be getting funding to pursue those programs at a time when many European nations are still dealing with the impacts of the pandemic.

“The pandemic is certainly on everyone’s minds in terms of economic recovery and investments that need to be made,” he said. “But on the other side, it’s created a bit of frustration, a bit of loss of energy and ambition among some populations. Having new ambitions, new dreams, new flagships could create a vision and ambition for Europe.”

The plans for the summit also highlight a new era of cooperation between ESA and the EU. “This was one of my top priorities when I started my job as director general of ESA,” Aschbacher said, highlighted by the completion of a financial framework partnership agreement between the two organizations in June that governs cooperation on joint projects like Copernicus and Galileo. “We’ve built up trust. I’m very happy that this fresh start has materialized.”

ESA’s pursuit of the summit and new flagship programs will not affect the agency’s cooperation with other agencies outside Europe, most notably NASA. Aschbacher said one of the goals of attending the Space Symposium was to meet with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and other NASA officials to discuss cooperative efforts ranging from Earth science to the upcoming launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on an Ariane 5 provided by ESA.

“NASA is very clearly our preferred partner in international cooperation for decades,” he said. “Bill was very clear that he wants us to be a very strong partner for international cooperation; their number one partner, if I may so.”