ESA’s Φ-week is now in its fourth edition, and each year this forward-looking event is increasingly relevant to society, business and the economy.
Kicking off with a bold flourish, Φ-week 2021 promises to bring space even closer to the forefront of addressing society’s biggest challenges, namely issues associated with the climate crisis, while boosting the economy through transformative New Space, artificial intelligence, and quantum and cognitive computing.

In his opening address, Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director General said, “Europe faces unprecedented societal, economic, and security challenges. Space has enormous untapped potential to play in tackling pressing current and future crises, while simultaneously providing new impulse for the European space sector. We need to develop smart, automated services and applications to protect lives of people and to increase the protection of assets and natural resources.”

Dr Aschbacher went on to explain how his priorities include transforming ESA and boosting green and digital commercialisation, as outlined in Agenda 2025.

He also announced a brand-new challenge, making €1 million available for funding studies centred on artificial intelligence and cognitive computing in space.

Launched in 2020, Φ-sat-1 – the first artificial intelligence to be carried on a European Earth observation mission – demonstrated the ability to run machine learning algorithms in space on an ultra-low power, off-the-shelf artificial intelligence accelerator chip.

ɸ-sat-1 enables the pre-filtering of Earth observation data so that only images with usable information are downlinked to the ground, thereby significantly reducing aggregated downlink costs.

The next artificial intelligence mission, ɸ-sat-2, is currently under development and will demonstrate new ways of collecting, distributing and analysing Earth observation data.

Dr Aschbacher continued, “Taking the potential of this new paradigm forward, ESA is planning a challenge to explore how the use of computing and artificial intelligence in space could help transform the way we develop space missions and applications. This will not be exclusive to the field of Earth observation, but also open to ideas linked to telecoms, exploration, robotics and more. We plan to select 10 activities to the value of €100 000 each.”

The opening ceremony also saw talks from Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA Acting Director of Earth Observation Programmes; Ekaterini Kavvada, Director of Innovation and Outreach at the European Commission’s DG DEFIS; Kris Peeters, Vice President of the European Investment Bank; Mark Boggett, co-founder and CEO of Seraphim Capital; and Rafal Modrzewski CEO and co-founder of ICEYE – all discussing their visions of New Space and the economy.

As the speakers highlighted, this year’s Φ-week is set to focus on how the New Space economy is developing in Europe alongside fierce competition worldwide. New technology is key, and the week will dig deeper into the latest computing breakthroughs and trends such as quantum computing and cognitive computing.

Toni Tolker-Nielsen said, “This week we are naturally building on the successes of the previous Φ-weeks, but importantly taking stock of the fast-pace of change all around us. The Earth observation market is booming worldwide, driven largely by demands linked to Europe’s Green Deal and by the New Space economy and opportunities with private investors.

“ESA is in the perfect position to align with the commercial world, but more importantly help lead the way. We are already busy helping industry be more competitive though our co-funding InCubed programme – which has boomed since the programme’s inception. We will of course be taking this much further and exploring many new opportunities though out the week and beyond.”