European Commission Looking for U.S. Partners for Space Projects

by





PALO ALTO, Calif. — European Commission officials are urging U.S. companies, universities, research laboratories and government agencies to join the competition announced July 20 for 99 million euros ($127 million) to fund new projects designed to meet the commission’s space science and technology goals.

Last year, U.S. organizations participated in seven projects that were selected to receive funding in the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Program for Research and Technological Development, the European Union’s primary instrument for research funding, said Peter Breger, policy officer for space research and develop in the European Commission’s Directorate for Enterprise and Industry in Brussels. On July 21, European Commission officials held a conference at Stanford University here to disseminate information on the next round of the research program and to encourage more widespread U.S. participation.

“We would like to have more U.S. participation in the research program,” said Astrid-Christina Koch, European Commission science counselor based in Washington. “We are looking for the best people to tackle grand challenges and find solutions.”

The invitation to U.S. organizations to join forces with European partners and form consortia to compete for research funding was widely seen by government and university officials attending the conference as part of a broader movement toward greater collaboration between the United States and Europe in space activities. International cooperation was cited as an important goal in the U.S. National Space Policy unveiled June 28 by President Barack Obama and has been emphasized repeatedly in speeches by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“In space, there are many topics that require international cooperation,” Breger said. That cooperation is particularly important in light of the current budget pressures faced by government space organizations around the world, he added.

The latest call for research proposals sets aside 99 million euros for projects in a wide range of areas, including space transportation, launch and propulsion technologies, robotic exploration, microsatellites, space science and the exploitation of voluminous mission data. Additional funding for each research and development project will be provided by the consortium members. “We pay on the order of two-thirds of the project’s cost,” Breger said. “We are able to reimburse 75 percent of the project costs incurred by nonprofit, public bodies and 50 percent for other organizations and industry.”

Proposals must be submitted to the European Commission by Nov. 25. They are then scheduled to be evaluated between December 2010 and February 2011 by an independent panel of experts selected by the European Commission, Breger said.

While U.S. academic institutions are participating in research projects selected for funding in last year’s competition, no U.S. companies are involved, according to Reinhard Schulte-Braucks, head of space research and development for the European Commission. “If companies want to participate, they can do so. In Europe, virtually all our projects have a combination of academic institutions and companies.”

Burton Lee, head of Stanford’s European Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, said he can understand the reluctance of U.S. organizations to join international research teams competing for the European Commission funding. Most research projects can win a maximum of 2 million euros from the European Commission. That money must then be shared among many consortium partners for work taking place over two, three or four years.

In order to compete in the European Commission research program, each consortium must include at least three independent European organizations from at least three of the European Union’s member states or associated states, Breger said. In contrast with the European Space Agency, which normally buys goods and services only from its member states, the European Commission awards grants to countries that are not members of the European Union. “We favor cooperation with other space-faring nations,” Schulte-Braucks said.

U.S. organizations would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity, according to Lee. “The European Commission is a new player in space research,” he said. “This is a very good opportunity to get a foot in the door of an emerging space organization. Down the road, that could be extremely valuable for U.S. space companies and universities.”

One area that European officials said was ripe for international cooperation was the study of how to prevent comets or asteroids from colliding with Earth. “It’s a problem that affects the whole world, so all the expertise of the space-faring nations should be brought to bear,” Schulte-Braucks said. Breger added, “This is an exciting area that has never been in a previous call for proposals.”

Another aspect of the European Commission’s plan that is likely to spark widespread interest internationally is the new CubeSat initiative. Many research institutions build the miniature spacecraft, which measure 10 centimeters on all sides and have a maximum weight of 1 kilogram, but cannot afford to launch them, Schulte-Braucks said. “We are interested in a project that combines 50 nanosatellites on a launch vehicle,” he added. “We would pay for the launch.”