it is official. France, Germany and Italy, the three largest contributors to the European Space Agency, have joined forces to compete with SpaceX. At a meeting this week, ESA agreed to guarantee the future of the next-generation Ariane 6 and Vega-C rocket launchers.
According to Stars and Stripes, the deal follows a months-long dispute between Paris and Berlin over intellectual property rights, export licenses and the budget, among other things.
ESA is asking its member states to contribute €18.5 billion over the next three years to fund space programs – a significant increase of more than 25% on previous funding.
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The three countries have also proposed allowing ESA to use European-made micro and mini launchers – currently being developed by Germany and France. ESA previously used SpaceX to launch two science missions.
Will European space startups benefit?
According to people familiar with the plans, Berlin will reportedly support future projects from Arianegroup (a joint venture of Airbus and Safran), provided programs are open to technology from European startups. It will be interesting to see how this works out in practice.
Germany has historically been the largest contributor to ESA’s budget, with space companies such as Airbus and OHB investing heavily in large-scale European space projects. Will it be enough to support startups and ensure their technology gets a share of the funding and opportunity?
Germany is looking at space
While it’s probably not the first country you think of when you think of space technology, the German space agency hosts InnoSpace Masters, an annual competition for space technology startups.
With supporters such as OHB and Mercedes-Benz Challenges, the competition is not just academic, there are categories for ideas with existing technologies, systems, services or solutions that are already in the innovation or integration phase. This is great news if you want to market real products. And there are some startups in Germany with compelling use cases.
Constellar uses microsatellites to monitor Earth’s surface temperature, map water needs and availability for agriculture. It enables smart crop monitoring and continuous resource management, enabling farmers to identify crop changes before symptoms become visible.
Similarly, LiveEO provides satellite-based monitoring of critical infrastructure such as power grids, pipelines and rail networks.
And a lot is happening in the field of rockets and R&D with the startup HyImpulse Technologies, which is developing a small European launch vehicle for small satellites. It uses a hybrid rocket engine that burns solid paraffin using liquid oxygen. This reduces costs, making them safe, cheap and therefore suitable for rapid market entry.
We are at a time when many people are questioning the distribution of funds in less tangible forms of research and development in the face of current global challenges such as climate change and fuel shortages. ESA funding could be a concerted effort to divert power from the space missions of Russia, China and North America. And that’s just when you think they can catch up to SpaceX. But whatever the underlying motivation, it is expected to drive space technology innovation through startups that will help improve life on Earth in the long run.