Opportunities for Europe in the New Space Race

December 22, 2021 | Europe

Executive Summary

Flagship space programs will improve Europe’s global standard-setting capability

  1. While lagging its peers in space technology, the EU has recently begun to view space programs as an enabler of strategic sovereignty as well as to shape the global order.

  2. With technological innovations reducing states’ comparative advantages, governments can now choose partners based on shared political ideologies rather than industrial needs.

  3. The EU has focused on space-based capabilities mainly to enable stronger continental defense and now faces the challenge of integrating discrete projects across member states and institutions

Watch out for

  • More states joining the Artemis Accords, a U.S.-sponsored multilateral agreement working to return humans to the Moon.

  • Continued work on reusable rocketry that reduce barriers to entry into space.

  • Growing interest of China and other actors in mega constellations of thousands of satellites.

  • Firm decision to extend the operation of the International Space Station (ISS), which the U.S. Senate hopes to keep going until 2030.

Key Figures

  • 84% of satellites launched in 2020 were commercial communications systems.

  • Communications satellites, both commercial and non-profit, constitute 48% of all operational satellites.

  • The global space sector grew by 4.4% in 2020 to almost $450 billion, driven by commercial space activities making up 80% of the total.

  • In 2020, government spending fell nominally, but over the last decade, total government spending on space increased by 18%.

State of Play

Different dimensions of competition in outer space

Geopolitical competition extends into space, as great powers have connected their space missions to broader strategies of establishing preferred international rules. So far, Europe has offered diplomatic methods to address destabilizing competition. Yet, it has become increasingly clear that only those states that master space technologies can write the rules of the orbital roads, with efforts to systematize space traffic coordination as one key area. However, the current animosity and competition among great powers has precluded work on a comprehensive global regulatory framework for Earth’s orbit. The EU’s limited focus on using space technologies to establish strategic autonomy restricts its ability to impact nascent norms through action. The expanding commercial sector adds another dimension of competition, forestalling effective and sustainable space management. A successful rules-setting exercise will require states to align national regulatory frameworks related to space operations. Existing international regulations provide meaningful templates, such as legal regime of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to ensure equitable and economical uses of geostationary orbit. The ITU also plays a valuable role in deconflicting sources of interference among satellite operators, which could be extended to other types of space governance.

Key Issues

A race for technology and regulation

Rivalries among states competing for power on Earth have not precluded space cooperation. The most prominent cooperative effort, the International Space Station (ISS), connects two historic competitors, the United States and Russia, with Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA) in pursuit of ground-breaking science. However, states are becoming more proficient space actors as innovation reduces barriers to space access. Reusable launch vehicles, improved satellite manufacturing, and revolutionary operational constructs have lowered the costs to access space. These technological innovations have flattened states’ comparative advantages, allowing them to choose ideologically close partners instead of having to collaborate with political opponents that command a specific technology needed.

States still compete for technological superiority, but the major contest among leading states has evolved into a sprint to attract a critical mass of partners to establish a preferred spatial order. For instance, the United States has invited all nations to sign the Artemis Accords, a set of obligations based on Washington’s interpretation of existing international law. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Defense recently issued internal guidelines for space behavior. These tenets could be an attempt to seed a future universal regulatory framework for space. China, too, is aiming to influence the rules in space by establishing ties with countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The space-related aspects of BRI focus on constructing space and ground segments, integrating services, and guaranteeing coordinated policies for future collaboration. China is expected to eventually leverage these relationships for support of its preferred governance methods and practices.

Europe’s continued challenges in space despite a new strategy

The EU has pivoted from considering space as a scientific pursuit to seeing it as an enabler of strategic sovereignty. The aim is to ensure the bloc can credibly and independently operate in and through space without relying on foreign systems. European programs like CHEOPS for planetary discovery and Rosetta for comet inspection already indicate scientific mastery, while launch vehicles like Ariane 5 evidence a strong industrial base. Adopting civil systems into security missions allows the EU to leverage this expertise to support strategic autonomy. For example, the EU has incorporated civilian systems for Earth observation (Copernicus) and global satellite navigation (Galileo) into its security network to support force readiness and lethality. These arrangements not only lower Europe’s dependence on foreign systems, but also support the EU’s strategic autonomy by bolstering security and economic prosperity.

The European Defence Agency has prioritized developing space-based and -related capabilities to both protect space assets and reinforce long-term technological sovereignty. Major focus areas relate to deriving information superiority from space by leveraging Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT), tactical Communication and Information Systems (CIS), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), and Space Situational Awareness (SSA), among others. This process started with establishing EU-wide defense requirements. Now the challenge is to integrate discrete projects across states and institutions – a task assigned to the European Commission’s Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space.

Europe faces several challenges in space. European countries and the EU itself have traditionally been junior partners in bigger missions and now struggle to initiate novel flagship programs. Tying ambitious projects in space to other strategic goals like shaping Europe’s digital future as well as reaching the EU’s climate goals could galvanize political will and open new funding streams. Moreover, tangible European assets in orbit would improve the continent’s standards-setting capability, which will be a critical aspect in efforts to systematize space traffic coordination and other much-needed orbital regulations.