European Space Policy: Actors, Objectives and Processes

Foreign Policy, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

European Space Policy: Actors, Objectives and Processes


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For nearly half a century, Europe has been actively involved in developing space technology through national and European programs. The European Space Agency (ESA), an intergovernmental agency, was launched in 1975 to promote European cooperation in space.

In 2003, the European Commission--the EU's executive arm--and ESA formally joined forces, drawing on each other's complementary strengths to further advance European space applications, exploration, research, and technology in the 21st century.

The European Commission drives the exploitation of space for the benefit of its citizens; ensures the continuity of relevant operational services; develops appropriate regulatory frameworks; and coordinates and promotes a single European position in international forums.

ESA and its 18 member countries--including 16 of the 27 EU Member States--are responsible for the conception and implementation of space programs, space-related scientific research, and the procurement of resources needed for space activities, particularly access to space and technology.

The European Space Policy, drafted jointly by the European Commission and ESA, outlines a unified European vision for the space sector. The policy strives to develop and exploit space applications that serve the needs of Europe; address space-related security and defense issues; apply space technology to improved understanding of climate change; foster a strong and competitive space industry; ensure independent, cost-effective access to space; and promote a European initiative in space exploration.

Through the European Space Policy, Europe has increased its coordination with international partners. For example, the European Commission and ESA jointly represent Europe in cooperation with other strategic partners and closely coordinate European participation in intergovernmental forums such as the Group on Earth Observations (GEO).

Europe's Launch Capabilities

Independent and cost-effective access to space is a strategic priority for Europe, and Europe has its own range of launch vehicles capable of launching the smallest scientific satellite or the heaviest commercial communications device from ESA's Kourou spaceport.

Ariane. Europe's independent adventure in space began on December 24, 1979, with the successful launch of Ariane 1, ESA's first heavy lifter. Today, Ariane 5 is used to launch satellites into geostationary transfer orbit, medium and low earth orbits, sun-synchronous orbits, and earth-escape trajectories. All versions of the Ariane 5 consist of a central core with two solid rocket boosters attached; the actual launch configuration can be adapted to specific satellite and trajectory requirements.

Vega. Small launchers like Europe's new Vega are necessary for the cost-effective placement of smaller satellites into the polar and low-earth orbits used for many scientific and earth observation missions. The most recent addition to Europe's series of launch vehicles, Vega was designed as a single body launcher with three solid propulsion stages and an additional liquid propulsion upper module used for positioning, orbit control, and satellite release. Unlike most small launchers, Vega will be able to place multiple payloads into orbit, making access to space easier, quicker, and cheaper. The first launch is expected in 2009.

Soyuz. In 2009, a Russian Soyuz launcher will lift off for the first time from a spaceport other than Baikonur, Kazakhstan or Plesetsk, Russia. The Soyuz rocket, expected to launch from Kourou, has been transporting cosmonauts into space since the 1950s. Soyuz, along with the U.S. space shuttle, ensures the continued transport of crews to and from the International Space Station. Soyuz 2, a medium-class launcher, will be able to carry up to three tons of cargo into geostationary transfer orbit from Kourou.

The International Space Station and Human Space Exploration

The International Space Station (ISS) is an unprecedented, state-of-the-art orbiting laboratory complex that enables scientists to push the envelope of space research well beyond current boundaries. …

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