Space research, a condensed ERA

Since 1999, the European Union and ESA have cooperated on a number of major projects. It is a partnership that should contribute fully to creating an attractive European Research Area and serve the ambitions of European space policy

A European global navigation system, Galileo will have around 30 satellites permitting location in time and space at any moment. © ESA
A European global navigation system, Galileo will have around 30 satellites permitting location in time and space at any moment. © ESA
The second satellite in the Galileo system, Giove B (here setting off for its launch in Baikonour, April 2008) will make it possible to test the most precise atomic clock ever launched into space. © ESA
The second satellite in the Galileo system, Giove B (here setting off for its launch in Baikonour, April 2008) will make it possible to test the most precise atomic clock ever launched into space. © ESA

Whether for telecommunications or Earth observation, space has become an economic field of top priority. Europe also needs a strong space policy if it is to make best use of a sector that is becoming increasingly vital for the knowledge-driven economy it wants to create.

Logically, EU activities linked to space applications as tools in support of its policy are very much in line with the mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), a research and development body. Most EU countries are members of this intergovernmental organisation, and most of the others have concluded cooperation agreements with it. This cooperation between the European Commission and ESA is therefore natural, each having, in a sense, developed its own European Research Area (ERA) dedicated to space and with many potential synergies between the two.

In 2004, the Commission and ESA signed a four-year agreement, subsequently extended through to 2012, that lays the foundations for a fruitful cooperation between the two institutions. A liaison office in Brussels facilitates communication between them. In May 2007, 29 European countries ratified the new European space policy signed jointly by the EU and ESA. Two projects, Galileo and Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES), managed by the EU with the ESA responsible for their technical development and deployment, are currently spearheading developments. These are often cited as a testimony to the success of European space policy and are actively contributing to the ERA’s ability to attract researchers from throughout the world.

European radionavigation

Galileo and EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service) are European satellite radionavigation programmes. Galileo is able to pinpoint a terrestrial emitter in space and time through crossed signal reception by several satellites. Following agreements signed in 2004 with the US Government, Galileo will be compatible and interoperable with the American GPS system. When its 30 satellites are launched, Galileo should be able to ensure Europe’s navigational independence at the scientific, commercial and strategic level.

EGNOS, the forerunner of Galileo, improves GPS performances in Europe. Equally financed by the EU and the ESA, this infrastructure was developed by the ESA and is managed by a consortium of aerial navigation services suppliers (European Satellite Services Provider). It should be operational in October 2009. But it was back in 1999, following initial studies with a view to EGNOS that generated the necessary skills and know-how, that the European Commission decided to work on the concept of a European system. This would provide global cover with ground installations spread uniformly across Europe as well as at various locations around the world.

After the programme encountered difficulties in negotiations with the private sector with a view to a concession-based financing of deployment and operation, in November 2007 the EU decided to go ahead with launching the project with public funds only. Norway and Switzerland, neither of them EU members but both of them ESA members, negotiated with the EU their participation in the Galileo programme. By virtue of the free, international and public access it provides, Galileo has attracted interest beyond Europe. The EU has concluded several agreements with third countries interested in cooperating while the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) has enabled several companies in third countries to participate in its work. The emerging space ERA is therefore attracting researchers from outside the EU, making the EU as a whole a more attractive area for scientists

Environment and security

The GMES programme, in which the EU, the ESA and their Member States have made major research and development investments, is a European Earth observation programme whose initial concept dates back to 1998. Although less known to the general public, it is nevertheless making a major contribution to the creation of a space ERA. GMES aims to deliver a wide range of information to its users in areas ranging from climate change to ocean and even border surveillance.

This information is collected via space and terrestrial infrastructures. The former are coordinated, developed and exploited principally by ESA and EUMETSAT, the European meteorological satellite operating system. The latter are more heterogeneous, some national and others international, and are dependent on various research agreements or programmes. They are coordinated by the European Environment Agency. The EU’s FP7 finances the various services responsible for analysing the information and disseminating it in the form of databases, maps or reports.

Given the multitude of partnerships, each of these information services is regarded as an ERA success story in itself. The LAND service, for example, which aims to provide information on land use and water quality, is part of the FP7 geoland2 project that is managed by a consortium headed by Astrium and that includes 50 partners. The MARINE service seeks, among other things, to manage marine resources or coastal activities and is linked to the FP7 MyOcean project with more than 60 European partners headed by Mercator Ocean. The ATMOSPHERE service, which monitors greenhouse gases, air quality and aerosols, has its roots in the FP7 MACC project. The EMERGENCY service, concerned with civil protection, humanitarian aid and security and its developments, is managed by the FP7 SAFER project that aims to bring together the best risk management and emergency projects developed by the European institutions. The environmental data obtained through GMES Earth Observation also contributes fully to the ERA objectives, namely resolving global problems such as climate change.

Although strong links with outside Europe enable the EU to benefit from scientific progress worldwide, it is above all the coordination of European research resources and potential that lies at the heart of Galileo and GMES, and that has enabled the EU and the ESA to learn to overcome structural difficulties and to partly function within a common organisation. But the mechanisms put into place must still be perfected and adapted, while others remain to be invented to ensure optimal efficiency and complementarity between the two organisations.

Stéphane Fay