October 10th, 2023
Mr. Daniel Noelke, from European Commission, DG DEFIS, unit "Innovation and New Space - Space Defence" (short CV here), has kindly accepted to answer to a few questions set by the EASN Association to highlight the actions, measures, and tools for achieving an increased European competitiveness, non-dependence, and innovation in the European space sector and at same time foster science and exploration.
Health, Green development and production, digitisation - these are the social issues that the European Union (EU) is addressing in the ninth research framework programme "Horizon Europe". From 2021 to 2027, the programme has a budget of 95.5 billion Euros and is intended to promote European research and economically viable innovations. Like its predecessor, Horizon Europe is structured around three priorities (Scientific Excellence, Global Challenges and Industrial Competitiveness of Europe, Innovative Europe), which are divided into different clusters.
Space Research and Innovation (R&I) is funded with 1.6 billion Euros and aims at sustaining modern EU space flagships (Galileo, Copernicus, IRIS2, SSA) and at increasing European competitiveness, non-dependence and innovation in the European space sector as well as fostering science and exploration. Space R&I support the European digital and green transformation and contribute to solutions to current problems, such as the climate crisis.
Continuous efforts in Space R&I, producing cutting-edge technologies and excellent sciences, are necessary to ensure, on the one hand, that the EU space infrastructure remains resilient and continues providing state of the art services and, on the other hand, that the EU develops new, strategically relevant capabilities for future space activities.
Q1: What are current challenges for Space Research in Europe?
Space Research in Europe faces different challenges which range from technological advancements, cooperation and competition at the European and global arena up to standardisation and policy aspects. On top of this, space research is conducted at different institutions at European and even national level, so it is very fragmented. This \'fragmented bottom-up\' approach at European level brings for sure positive impacts such as manifold funding opportunities for academia and research organisations leading to excellence science and research and contributing at large to the education and skills development in Europe. Nevertheless, a disadvantage of this situation is that the overall pace from idea to product is relatively slow with increased risk for duplication of efforts and management complexity of projects. Despite the fact that disruptive bottom-up research is enabling new pathways, an important challenge for space R&I in Europe which must not be underestimated is the fact that there is no common long-term vision on the evolution of the future European space ecosystem. Especially in space research, where developments are usually very long, significant funding and financial investments as well as certain confidence on continuation are required, although this is very challenging when research agendas change with the change of policy agendas after couple of years. Therefore, for key areas with high strategic potential, top-down approaches for R&I are necessary based on common roadmaps for goal-oriented research and development priorities to quickly derive products and services.
Q2: How must Space R&I evolve to meet the challenges, and what is the role of academia in this?
The above challenges are complex, interrelated and cannot be solved all at once. Nevertheless, certain steps could be introduced in the process of developing the space ecosystem in order to solve them step by step. With regard to EU-funded space R&I, it will be important to establish a common orientation based on a vision for the development of the EU space ecosystem with its infrastructure on the ground and in space. This will give orientation to the European space community. Furthermore, close cooperation between all space-related R&I sectors is envisaged to improve the exploitation of synergies between domains and sectors in order to increase the use of public funds, shorten development times and accelerate the pace of innovation. In this context, close cooperation between the European institutions and space agencies, the research community and academia is important to pool resources and knowledge and to bring together expertise.
These are not just examples, but important aspects for the European Commission to work towards a Strategy for EU Space R&I that should pave the way for an ambitious R&I agenda in the next MFF and beyond, based on a more holistic and strategic approach.
Thereby, the roles of universities and research institutions is essential. Especially when it comes to driving innovation and developing cutting-edge space technologies, promoting science and exploration, data analysis and use, education and skills development, and strengthening public interest and support for space research. In summary, academia plays a multifaceted role in promoting space research. It contributes to collaboration, interdisciplinarity, innovation and technology development, education and skills, policy development and public engagement, all of which are crucial to addressing the challenges facing European space research.
Q3: How it will be ensured that funded research and development comply with user, market and system needs, so that projects results cane largely be exploited?
With regard to EU space, the first programmes to mention are Galileo, Copernicus and IRIS2. With them, the European Union has unique systems that provide European citizens with highly accurate navigation services and Earth observation for the atmosphere, sea, land, climate change, security and emergency services as well as in the future with secured communication services. Additionally, the European Commission is developing Space Situational Awareness (SSA) services to better protect EU infrastructure in space and GOVSATCOM (Governmental Satellite Communications) to provide secure communications for governmental institutions. These components are supported by targeted R&D (Research and Development) under Horizon Europe which are derived based on users\' needs collected through dedicated forums.
Another important area related to space in Horizon Europe is the promotion of the competitiveness of the EU space sector, which is challenged by global competition. In particular, the focus is on strengthening the EU's capacity to access space and to provide innovative and competitive systems for telecommunications, Earth observation and future in-space services (i.e. satellite maintenance, satellite recycling, etc.). Over the past years, strategically important areas and technology topics have been identified in close consultation with stakeholders including RTOs and academia. These areas are considered to be particularly relevant for fostering competitiveness. From this, so-called high-level roadmaps are derived for specific topics with support of stakeholders. Such roadmaps prioritise necessary technology developments, and are the baseline for goal-oriented R&I actions within the framework of Horizon Europe. In this regard, cooperation between the different stakeholders is supported through dedicated events such as the Horizon Europe Info Days with the so-called B2B (business-to-business) meetings as an additional networking event. In the area of Space R&I, DG DEFIS uses the so-called Consultation and Coordination Framework for EU Space R&I, to support cross-fertilisation and cooperation between various stakeholders.
Q4: Which focal points will become relevant in the future?
In contrast to H2020, Horizon Europe focuses more on supporting new space, start-ups and entrepreneurships. Future space research and innovation are likely to encompass a wide range of topics, driven by policy and stakeholder needs, scientific curiosity, technological advancements, and practical applications. The development of strategic capabilities is key for the EU to become a space power on equal footing with other regions of the globe and to preserve EU\'s freedom of action in Space. In particular in areas such as access to space, in-space services for increasing resilience of the EU space infrastructure and provision of in-space logistics, monitoring space or space exploration. This requires a significant level of R&I efforts whereby space R&I activities should also benefit the larger EU space ecosystem through spin-offs and cross-fertilisation with other space domains and other sectors (e.g. commercial activities) and through the development of key building blocks from emerging technologies such as quantum, robotics, or Artificial Intelligence (AI). Collaboration among space agencies, industry partners, research organisations and academia will be essential to address these challenges and drive progress towards the future space ecosystem. All those points should be properly reflected in the future Space R&I strategy of the Union.