Space – the final frontier – but is that frontier going to be a peaceful milky way or an intergalactic arms race? This was the question addressed during a 2 May hearing, in particular the role that the EU’s emerging space programme should play in the development of defence and security policy. It came a few days after the European Commission and the European Space Agency issued a communication stating that the space exploration must be based on “peaceful exploitation”.

Certainly space is becoming more congested. The US, Russia, the EU, India and China all have substantial space programmes. The EU has allocated €1.4 billion to research and development over the next six years – mainly in support of the Galileo satellite programme.

The Communication calls for an “integrated European Space Programme” to improve efficiency with joint projects navigation, earth observation, satellite communications, security and defence. It also calls for the development of a joint international relations strategy in relation to space.

“EU needs information Satellites”

If information is power, then satellites orbiting the earth are very powerful indeed. Their importance lies in the myriad tasks they can perform – from the weather forecast to international communication to more defence related activities, like acquiring information on external threats.

It is the latter usage which most concerned participants in the hearing. Karl von Wogau of Parliament’s sub-committee on security and defence said Europe “needs information satellites for military missions, to protect its external borders, to protect sensitive infrastructure and even warn about tsunamis”.

MEPs and experts supported the peaceful use of space-related technology and the need for further information satellites such as the European navigation system “Galileo” This is under the civilian control of the ESA and its member countries, in contrast to the US’s GPS system which is under American military control.

“Potential to turn outer space into a battlefield”

Rebecca Johnson of the Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in London, author of the EP-commissioned “Europe’s space policies and their relevance to European Security and Defence Policy”, told MEPs that “space can provide unparalleled resources for supporting Europe’s security in relation to humanitarian and environmental crises and diverse natural, criminal and military threats”.

However, in a stark warning she said that “it is important to recognise the potential to turn outer space into a battlefield”. Ms Johnson warned that “space has become a dangerously contested ‘high ground’ for some military strategists, particularly in the US, who promote the argument that whoever controls space will obtain an unassailable military and commercial dominance”.

In January this year China gave a very public demonstration of its technology in the space military sector by successfully testing a device that could shoot down satellites.

28,000 European jobs in space

Space is by no means a peripheral activity confined to laboratories. At present 28,000 jobs across the Union are in the space manufacturing industry, with European companies having a 40% share of the commercial market for the lucrative satellite launch and design market.

Impressive though these may be however, in space exploration money talks and the US is talking loudest with an annual investment of $17 billion in its civil space programme and $21 billion going to military uses.

On 22 May a Space Council between EU ministers and representatives of non-EU ESA members will discuss the next steps in an emerging space policy.

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