Europe’s space sector needs more investment to fulfil its potential in the fight against climate change, industry figures have said.
Data from the EU’s flagship Galileo and Copernicus satellites are being used to detect changing climate conditions and navigate energy-saving routes.
But the European space sector lacks the towering presence of the US and China’s vastly better-funded programmes.
EU leaders have used the Cop26 summit in Glasgow to promote their plans to make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent.
However, they have failed to put space policy at the heart of their climate and digitalisation plans, said Steve Spengler, head of a group of satellite operators called ESOA.
Mr Spengler said Europe needed to ensure it did not become “only a customer” of cutting-edge space technology developed by others.
“Europe needs to do more to support the space economy,” he told an online space forum on Monday.
“Against the backdrop of Cop26, we need to recognise the role of satellite communications in the protection of the environment and global climate change. Space data is key to observing how quickly the environment is changing and the threats that poses to humanity.”
Rodrigo da Costa, executive director of the EU Agency for the Space Programme, said the cosmos was central to achieving Europe’s objectives.
“Space is impacting our economy and society across a broad spectrum of areas, from aviation and agriculture to maritime and logistics, from your smartphone to your car to your bank account,” he said.
“Space is a key enabler of the European Green Deal, a Europe fit for the digital age and the safety and security of our citizens.”
Copernicus, a satellite observation programme, is credited with providing data on global temperatures, sea ice, land use and the marine environment.
Its sister project, Galileo, a satellite navigation system, can plot energy-efficient routes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
But Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency, said Europe needs a bigger commercial space sector in addition to these publicly funded projects.
“Europe must be more proactive and responsive and quicker on the market,” said Mr Aschbacher.
“It is of paramount importance that Europe benefits from a vibrant commercial space sector to serve its own societal and economic needs and priorities.”
Andre-Hubert Roussel, leader of industry lobby Eurospace, said Europe’s space sector was not playing on a level field with its competitors.
He said the space budget in Europe was only a seventh of that of the US and described the sector as receiving “very limited and fragmented public support”.
“We Europeans have ideas. We must turn them into budgets,” said Mr Roussel. “Preparing the next generation of space capability will require, and requires, massive investment.”
As well as more money, EU leaders need to put regulations in place to ensure space does not become overcrowded, Mr Spengler said.
He bemoaned the fact that the EU’s plans for a Digital Decade leading up to 2030 did not have space policy at their core.
“The need for sophisticated controls to ensure a safe space environment has become clear. To avoid disaster and preserve space services, we urgently need governments to act,” he said.
“Europe can play a leading role by establishing norms it expects industry to adhere to and by fostering the collection and sharing of data from around the world.”
Evi Papantoniou, a space adviser to the European Commission, said the sector could help to drive the EU’s economic recovery from Covid-19.
She said Brussels wanted Europe’s satellite data to be used as much as possible in sectors such as agriculture and tourism.
“The importance of the space sector for EU security and our daily lives cannot be overstated,” she said.
“Space innovation is a must to ensure that Europe can stay in the global race and compete internationally.”