Europe's space chief calls for greater UAE collaboration

European Space Agency's ambition for partnership has increased dramatically alongside its funding, Josef Aschbacher says

ESA’s latest interplanetary mission, Juice, lifts off on an  Ariane 5 rocket  in April. The agency's boss has revealed plans for deeper co-operation with the UAE. Photo: ESA
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The European Space Agency is an awakening giant that wants to “further explore co-operation opportunities” with the UAE’s programme, its chief told The National.

Dr Josef Aschbacher also suggested the ESA could collaborate on a second Rashid lunar mission to fly a UAE lander to the Moon.

With the space agency's budget rising to almost $8 billion following a 17 per cent uplift this year, Europe has “woken up a sleeping beauty” in its ambition to explore space, the director general said.

Part of that is a major astronaut programme that will likely see manned ESA flights to the Moon “and beyond” within the next decade, with deep exploration of the lunar surface expected.

A partner with potential

Dr Aschbacher said the ESA, an inter-governmental space agency featuring 22 member states including non-EU countries such as Norway and the UK, was becoming a major space power and collaborator that wanted to reach out to others including the Emirates.

“The UAE is a partner where I expect a lot of potential from in the future,” he said, speaking at the UK Space Conference in Belfast. “In fact, we have already had some first contacts with different partners in the UAE and I would like to further explore co-operation opportunities.”

While the Rashid rover mission did not succeed due to a heavy landing in April, Mr Aschbacher told The National: “We are exploring whether we could work on the second version of it” with the Emirates.

“I see the UAE as an emerging space nation and I would like to explore what is in the interests of both sides in order to co-operate much stronger and intensify international co-operation."

Sleeping beauty

While Europe has been good at building satellites and launching them via its Ariane rockets from French Guiana in South America, the ESA boss acknowledged it was now “dramatically” stepping up a gear in the race for space exploration, with the significant uplift in investment.

“I really think we have managed in Europe to wake up the sleeping beauty. That means there's a lot of expertise and excellence in European space but it has lacked a bit of speed and acceleration and I think this is happening right now.”

Following a meeting of ministers in Seville this month, there has been “a paradigm shift” to become much more competitive in space missions and exploration, he said.

“In 10 years from today, we will see a competitive launcher developing towards the heavy launcher,” he added. “On exploration I'm pretty sure that the cargo vehicle which we are now opening up for competition will hopefully develop into a crewed vehicle.”

He said space was “becoming a fundamental element of the international economy”.

Antarctic Moon

Dr Aschbacher believes discovering more about the Moon is similar to how humankind explored the harsh Antarctic landscape “when people were just going to plant the flag there” a century ago.

For a few decades Antarctic exploration went quiet until countries started building research stations to better understand the planet.

“Now when you drill a core into the Antarctic you get the history of our climate from over hundreds of thousands of years ago, which you wouldn't get otherwise because of its pristine environment,” he said.

“The Moon is very similar and it is a part of Earth that means there might be history of our planet that can be traced by exploring it.”

With ice likely to be found on the lunar south pole, this could also be converted into oxygen and fuel, potentially to launch rockets further into space.

The six successful American Moon landings took place on its equator, leaving a lot more of the surface to be discovered. “Exploration by its nature means that you get to discover the unknown and see what this will bring for humankind.”

Climate overwatch

The ESA is also a leader in examining how climate change is affecting the Earth with its Copernicus programme.

“Space can be used to save our planet, literally, by the use of information gathered from Earth observation satellites, feeding them into simulations, helping to make decisions on how best to react to climate change impacts,” said Dr Aschbacher.

These observations are then transferred into high-performance computing, artificial intelligence or possibly quantum computing to provide much better decision tools.

“I call them ‘digital twins’, where we simulate our plant and therefore can give people and also politicians a much better tool in how best to counter the impact of climate change.

“These parameters can also help make better business decisions for countries to eventually become carbon neutral by 2050.”

Musk inspiration

Elon Musk’s control of more than 3,500 satellites and the SpaceX launch mission gives one individual great power but the ESA boss did not regard this as a threat.

“I think he has an inspiration. What Elon Musk and his company is doing is quite amazing, inspiring a lot of us around the world to see what can be advanced at speed.”

But he also warned against the increased militarisation of space and in particular China’s previous use of anti-satellite rocket (ASAT) tests that have cause a large amount of debris.

“This is a huge concern and I sincerely hope that there are no more ASAT tests because they are so destructive. This new debris is a danger of all the other satellites that are out there and one of the main sources of collisions, which is highly dangerous and everyone is impacted.”

Updated: November 22, 2023, 1:50 PM