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European ministers tackle sharp increase in space funding

A photograph shows the European spacecraft JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) in a clean room at the ESA (European Space Agency) headquarters in Toulouse, southwestern France, on 5 April, 2022. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE / AFP)

PARIS – European ministers are meeting in Paris to negotiate a more than 25 percent funding boost for space over the next three years as Europe seeks to maintain a lead in Earth observation, expand navigation services and remain a key partner in exploration.

The European Space Agency is asking its 22 nations to back a budget of 18.7 billion euros ($19.22 billion) for 2023-25, up from 14.5 billion euros at its last triennial summit, in 2019, against a backdrop of pressure on public finances as well as the conflict in Ukraine.

The European Space Agency is asking its 22 nations to back a budget of 18.7 billion euros for 2023-25, up from 14.5 billion euros at its last triennial summit, in 2019, against a backdrop of pressure on public finances as well as the conflict in Ukraine

"There are lots of views in the member states … and willingness to find the way forward," Anna Rathsman, who chairs the agency's council, said on the eve of the Nov 22-23 talks.

Days after the uncrewed launch of NASA's new moon rocket carrying a European service module, the Paris gathering will review plans for a new logistics lander for the moon, Argonaut.

Other initiatives include extending Europe's global navigation system into low Earth orbit and kickstarting a new satellite mission, Harmony, to expand climate research.

Ministers will seek to close a narrow funding gap for Ariane 6 rockets and discuss the future of emerging micro-launchers.

ESA nations will also discuss a "zero-debris" approach to space at a time when the Ukraine conflict has highlighted the rapid expansion of constellations such as SpaceX's Starlink.

In a recent interview, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher urged rapid global action to tackle congestion in low Earth orbit including a ban on tests of anti-satellite weapons.

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Although rare, such tests have fuelled concerns about the militarization of space, which sits uncomfortably alongside commercial and other peaceful uses for space, without which, Aschbacher told Reuters, "society would crumble".

Even without such threats, the sheer number of satellites and fragments of debris in low Earth orbit is a challenge.

"There will be accidents; this is to be expected … The question is how much energy is put into avoiding accidents," Aschbacher said.

"It's a problem for everyone; I think first and foremost for those who operate large constellations … This is an issue that needs to be tackled at a global level with everyone involved."

European Space Agency (ESA) General Director Josef Aschbacher poses during a photo session in Paris on October 7, 2022. (JOEL SAGET / AFP)

Space commercialization

Aschbacher also highlighted a drive to ensure that by 2030 all satellites would be put in orbit sustainably, with a plan for disposing of them safely at the ends of their working lives.

Aschbacher also highlighted a drive to ensure that by 2030 all satellites would be put in orbit sustainably, with a plan for disposing of them safely at the ends of their working lives

"If you take something into a national park, you have to take it out in terms of garbage. I see orbits in a similar way; if we put a satellite in, we need to guarantee to take it out."

Europe aims to improve its share of the commercialization of space, dominated by US firms such as SpaceX.

Private investment in space soared 86 percent between 2017 and 2021 globally, but just 14 percent in Europe.

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European firms have raised "nowhere near" as much capital as in the United States, where public agencies typically allow companies to sign long-term contracts and attract more private partners, according to the European Space Policy Institute.

While focusing on public budgets, ESA says it has made some 18 agreements with venture-capital firms to promote space.