European Space Agency

Future Perspectives for Europe in Space

A. Atzei, K. Pseiner & D. Raitt

Systems Studies Division, ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

The events of 1989, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, presented Europe as a whole with its greatest challenge of recent years. The adaptation process to cope with this new continental order has now entered a critical phase and for space activities too the context for current and future plans is changing rapidly for various reasons:

It was with these factors in mind that in 1993 ESA initiated a study called Space 2020 , to examine how such issues might impact on space activities in the next 25 years. This article provides an overview of the objectives of Space 2020 and the scenarios considered possible at that time, as well as a discussion of some of the areas specifically relevant to the future of European space endeavours.


ESA's 'Space 2020' study has attempted to provide a programme-independent view of the possibilities and constraints for the European space sector, and for ESA in particular, by interacting with external consultants from all major disciplines to derive a strategic assessment. This independent view is of the utmost importance in covering the complex network of factors influencing future prospects for the space sector.

The 'Space 2020' study constitutes both a projection and an evaluation of potential developments not only in space activities in general, but also within ESA itself, with the objective of anticipating and preparing the possible future infrastructures of a dynamic and efficient Agency with a competitive industrial organisational base.

This objective is the focus of the following questions:

Answering the above questions calls for an assessment of methodologies and organisational structures that could contribute substantially to a visible improvement in efficiency and thus in the competitivity of space-based services.

The scenarios

Greater Europe Scenario
Around the end of the decade, the European Union will, in principle, have monetary union, convergence of economic policies, an integrated defence system and a common foreign policy.

Little Europe Scenario
In this scenario, no real progress towards European integration is expected up to the end of the decade, particularly as far as monetary union and the convergence of foreign and defence policies are concerned.

In the first phase of the Space 2020 study, two important scenarios were selected as the reference models for the time horizon chosen: the 'Greater Europe Scenario' and the 'Little Europe Scenario'. Regardless of which of these two scenarios proves to reflect more accurately the situation prevailing by the year 2020, it is expected that the major challenges for the European space sector are likely to stem from the mounting needs for commercial services in the most dynamic regions of the world. There is general agreement that the role of public authorities in the economy will be reduced and that a free market will be the dominant feature of the economic order up to 2020 and beyond.

Space activities have so far been driven mainly by the programmes and initiatives of national governments and/or European institutions such as ESA. Sometimes these efforts have been motivated more by national prestige rather than more altruistic goals. In the future, such motivations will gradually fade, with increased cooperation and competition. Companies will come under increasing pressure to find new outlets and applications for their products and services, and this growing dynamism has important implications for the space industry.

For the European space sector, and ESA in particular, the political future of the European Union (EU) will have a major impact. Within a Greater Europe scenario, the space sector would gain additional momentum from an economic as well as from a technological push. ESA could be proposed as an integrative agency not only for the continuation of the existing mandate, but could also evolve to incorporate the former COMECON countries and so extend its international influence with respect to the USA, Russia and the Far East. Furthermore, ESA could strengthen its ties with other countries with fledging space industries in a number of ways.

On the other hand, if no real progress is made towards European integration up to the end of this decade, the space sector will split up into several regional alliances to serve the commercial and national demands. Strong competition from the USA and the Far East would be imposed on the key players and ESA would be faced with permanent struggles for budgets and a limited political consensus on its mandate.

Table 1 shows four scenarios for the European space sector including ESA. Here the two major scenarios of Greater Europe and Little Europe are further subdivided into scenarios for strong economic growth (GNP growth above 3% = low budget constraints) and a scenario assuming low economic growth (GNP growth below 3% = high budget constraints).

Scenarios for ESA
Table 1. Scenarios for the European space sector and ESA

International cooperation vs competition

To remain appropriate, space activities must take place within a new world order of different political, economic, military, social and environmental structures, where sustainable development, quality of life, and stability become paramount. The global, interlinked nature of many of today's problems and possibilities points to international cooperation as the best course.

The objective of international cooperation is not merely the exchange of existing data and information; it is also a medium for the acquisition of new knowledge through a common programme of research in which the different partners agree to pool their intellectual, financial and logistic resources.

Today, space can be considered the epitome of international cooperation - especially where new large and expensive or globally-reaching programmes are concerned. The 'success story' of international cooperation in space is exemplified by Space Science, and the opportunity to develop further international cooperative ventures in space applications of existing and evolving technology has never been better. However, it is by no means certain that a comparable degree of cooperation can be reached in other areas of space activities in the foreseeable future, because of the growing risk of commercial conflicts (e.g. in the telecommunications satellite market). The balance between cooperation and competition is thus subtle and continually evolving.

Evolution of R&D policy in Europe

Until the beginning of the 1980s, European policy for science and technology relied on the so-called 'linear model of innovation'. According to this model, financing the upstream process of innovation (basic science) will progressively generate new products, markets and opportunities for growth downstream. Moreover, there was a broadly accepted principle that governments should participate strongly in research funding because of the lack of incentives from the private sector.

Certain areas, such as nuclear and high-energy physics and space activities, were considered 'big science' and thus prime candidates for government funding because they had high fixed costs, results and output were remote from markets, and activities required a high degree of collaboration between countries. While early evaluations of such R&D programmes provided positive evidence for continuing government-funded big-science projects, the situation nowadays is being reconsidered, particularly for space programmes.

Even if some parts of space activities exhibit the features of big science (ever-increasing fixed costs and infrastructure), space is being considered as an activity the essence of which is to integrate a wide range of other activities and technologies - from pure basic research to advanced technical developments. There is thus not only reason to expect spin-off from space projects, but also 'spin-in', i.e. the fact that space should be considered as something that pulls together other activities. To a large extent, it appears that space has hitherto been thought of as a closed sector developing in isolation from other sectors. Future R&D policy for space should correct this assumption and ensure that space activities are open to these other areas.

Technological breakthroughs

New technologies are increasingly being developed in all areas. As far as the space segment is concerned, it is widely accepted that the miniaturisation of systems is a vitally important breakthrough which will allow the launch of extremely high performance systems within a reduced envelope in terms of size, mass, power and cost compared with today's systems. Technology advances in the USA have already enabled the miniaturisation of satellites (particularly for science and earth observation), and a target reduction by a factor of ten is planned for the next decade. Several missions will be accomplished using satellites weighing no more than a few tens of kilo-grammes by 2020. State-of-the-art technology will permit the development of smaller platforms, as well as smaller instruments. Onboard data compression, fibre optics, lightweight large-capacity recorders, artificial intelligence, etc. will allow flexible mission designs with fast reaction times and improved scientific and operational returns.

In the ground-segment area, technological advances will also embrace both hardware and software. Fibre- optic networks, data-dissemination satellites and information superhighways will revolutionise the distribution and exchange of data, and thus the structure of the value-added service market.

Access to space

Present developmental activities for future space launchers (of classical concepts) are targeted towards low-Earth-orbit (LEO) missions. These developments usually go in the direction of capacity improvements by increasing tank sizes, increasing the thrust of the engines, and providing launch-assist strap-on boosters to create 'families' of launchers. There are also a number of hypersonic technology programmes related to aerospace planes in Germany, the UK and the USA. Since several of these concepts are based on technologically-advanced air-breathing hypersonic engines, performance and cost projections are not firm. It can be assumed, however, that the technological problems of hypersonic flight are too difficult to be solved within the next two decades, and thus expectations for commercial satellite launches using novel aerospace planes by the 2020 timeline are low.

The satellite launching market is expected to be even more competitive in the future in that:

An analysis of the present space launch-vehicle situation indicates several important reasons why Europe's Ariane should continue to maintain a large market share:

Europe's strongest rival for future commercial satellite launch services is likely to be Japan. Russia is seeking financially-strong partners and thus that country can be viewed either as a future rival or a future partner with excellent launchers. China is not seen as a serious rival in the long-term, but does have good launchers and is also looking for cooperation - possibly with Brazil with its optimal launch location. The US launcher fleet needs improvements to its existing models, but this will probably not lead to vehicles superior to Ariane-4/5.

Space science

Space science is a field that seems to have a more or less permanent base of support from a public interested in learning more about the space frontiers and tantalised and intrigued by the prospect of finding life on other worlds. On the other hand, preoccupation with personal and social problems means that public sympathy for space-science funding is not always as great as it could be. While space- science research has been conducted in universities and research establishments for many years, the creation of space agencies has given rise to other programmes, with a consequent reduction in the amount spent on space-science projects despite the over-whelming successes in this area.

These achievements are, however, no longer sufficient to mobilise enough support in the face of mounting budgetary pressures. The long-term trend, certainly in the USA, seems to be a move away from large expensive space-science missions (only two are currently foreseen within the next ten years) in favour of a greater number of cheaper missions using small spacecraft. This plan is being followed not only by NASA (with its Discovery programme), but also by various universities which are again beginning to take the lead in space science.

In Europe, the Horizon 2000 and Horizon 2000+ Programmes are paving the way for Space 2020 in space science and the relative financial stability of the European programmes means that space science may not suffer from the problems encountered in the USA. However, in the long term, Europe too will require a more cost-effective strategy if it wants its space-science programmes to survive what is thought to be an inevitable decrease in government funding. The trend towards smaller and cheaper space-science missions will also occur in Europe because of the competitive pressure from the rest of the world, where the requisite technologies are already being developed for other applications.

Space exploration

It is only through international cooperation and coordination between the various space agencies throughout the world that sufficient resources can be mustered to accomplish the goal of space exploration.

The initial (unmanned) exploration of Mars will require landers, rovers, balloons and a new generation of technologies, since planetary exploration places uniquely stringent constraints on the mass, power and data rate of the equipment used. Closer to Earth, the Moon also offers opportunities for exploration and scientific utilisation:

A Moon Programme would be based on long-term objectives and on the principle of a phased approach, with international cooperation becoming increasingly important. Its implementation must comply with the availability of financing, starting with small, low-cost, automatic missions and progressing to more complex robotic endeavours, and eventually to manned missions. Such a phased evolutionary approach allows uncertainties over the role of humans in space and the economic utilisation of the Moon to be assessed later, in the light of results from the earlier phases.

Space and the information society

The commercial telecommunications satellite market is the most mature of the space markets. It is currently dominated by world and regional systems and by American private operators. Each satellite application has specialised service providers and a particular terrestrial competitor. The frequency spectrum is a scarce resource normally allocated by licence rather than in an open market.

By 2020, however, the present-day communications and media/entertainment indus-tries will have merged in the multimedia revolution. Voice, data and visual-image services are likely to be offered through a single digital distribution system which will be interactive and narrowcast rather than broadcast in nature. Already, many experimental interactive television services are either operational or planned. Key emerging services that appeal to mass users are home shopping, video or movies on demand, tele- banking, sport and games, and mobile services (such as vehicle tracking and communications, and personal communications). It should be noted, however, that the likely focus for multimedia services in European homes is expected to be the personal computer, as opposed to the television set in the United States.

It is apparent that fibre-optic cable will play a major role in the provision of telematic services over the so-called 'information superhighway', though satellites will have a large part to play in feeding cable heads and in remote areas where it is not practical to install cables. The space sector will also have a major role in specific services required across a broad geographical area by end-users in niche markets, for example tele-education and distance learning, tele-medicine and tele-health, home shopping and banking, and interactive TV. The projected total market value of the broadcasting and telecommunications market and the satellite market values in 2020 are shown in Figure 1.

The key issues, then, in the development of the space service sector are a liberalisation of and demand in end-user markets in the information, entertainment and communication fields, and economic growth - both of which lead to a demand for suitable delivery mechanisms. Open access to space segments together with market-based access to orbit, spectrum resources, technological progress and R&D have an affect on the availability, cost and quality of space-based services. The availability, cost and quality of terrestrial cable networked services are also important factors.

In summary, it can be concluded that:

Space technologies also have enormous potential in the health and medical field. Satellite video-conferencing can be used for long-distance medical diagnosis and keyhole surgery, while remote sensing, geographic information systems and meteorological data transmitted by satellite will be used for assessing the geographical distribution and spread of infectious diseases. Satellite navigation systems will permit a more efficient transport of medical supplies, personnel and patients, while better communications will provide more effective and timely emergency medical services (e.g. the GATES concept in Fig. 3a and Fig. 3b).

Satellites can transmit medical, nutritional and agricultural advice to large numbers of people in remote areas. The information can be delivered to those who need it fast, when other means (e.g. land telephone lines) may be poor or even non-existent. It has been shown that in India, for instance, huge advances in knowledge about health and hygiene, family planning and political awareness have been made via educational programmes beamed direct to small villages.

The global navigation systems are expected to be widely used by civilian aviation. For this reason, plans will be put forward to develop a civilian satellite navigation system that can be used internationally. Such a system could be developed and built with international cooperation.

Although one cannot yet fully appreciate the future development of the services made possible by the above information technology, one can expect that new frontiers for applications will open up.

Broadcasting and Telecomms Market
Figure 1. Total broadcasting and telecommunications market

Key Issues
Figure 2. Key issues in the development of the space service sector

GATES Concept
GATES Concept
Figure 3a and Figure 3b. Tele-medicine scenario (GATES concept)

The prospects for remote sensing

The remote-sensing market is a fast-growing area with nearly triple the number of satellites being launched in the period 1992-1996 than in the previous five years. Although the current market value for data is in the order of $200 million, it is increasing by some 20% per year. In the long term, remote-sensing data is expected to be exploited for a wide variety of applications including arms control, environment and climate monitoring, resources exploration, land management and disaster protection.

For too many years, the Earth Observation (EO) communities have been in the situation of 'having a solution and looking for a problem'; i.e. the development of products and services has been driven by technology. This is not unique to EO technology, but it fits the pattern of introduction of most new technologies.

There are a wide range of applications relating to ecological monitoring that remain mostly untouched by remote-sensing technology. Many such applications have been discussed and potentially the biggest is cross-disciplinary and relates to treaty verification/legislation enforcement. Largely untouched at the moment, it is an area with huge potential in which EO can make practical contributions to global problems. More than anything else, the user community (governments, international organisations) still needs convincing of the value of EO data.

Closely related to the above application, the detection and monitoring of major risks (natural and technological disasters) will most likely be on the political agenda even more prominently than today. Disaster monitoring and relief capabilities may well be a major requirement for future satellite constellations.

User education and environmental awareness, and easy access to data coupled with fast delivery, are also sure to be deemed important.

The Trends

The trends highlighted below represent a condensed summary of the major issues addressed during the Space 2020 study:


In recent years, it has become evident that the space community has to prepare for new challenges, both in technical areas and in the commercial sectors. Space is expected to start the transition from an undisputed government-supported engagement (telecommunications excluded) to a service-on- demand type of business. There are various reasons for this:

The space sector clearly needs innovative ideas and a visionary spirit, to broaden the scope and the destination of space services and at the same time reduce their cost. How can we encourage private investment in economically convincing services? How can public services with more convincing social benefits be provided to governments?

The innovations in technologies and methodologies are emerging as a future challenge for space agencies, industries and operators. The technological challenges lie primarily in low-cost launchers and low-cost autonomous spacecraft, probably much smaller in size and benefiting from commercial mass-market technologies, as already evident in the computer, automobile and communications sectors. Technology transfer, synergy and cooperation are certainly key factors for achieving 'more with less' at the global level. It is likely, however, that in order to make space more accessible for both public and private operators, some kind of technical and cultural revolution has to take place. Therefore there has to be a systematic effort to explore innovative concepts and the frontiers of technological research. In addition, the problems of funding of research and development - by both the governmental and private sectors - have also to be addressed in a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation.

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Right Left Up Home ESA Bulletin Nr. 82.
Published May 1995.
Developed by ESA-ESRIN ID/D.