COVID-19's 'deep impact' on the space industry
The effects of coronavirus have been so extraordinary that even Space has not been immune. Politicians in Europe warn that the economic impact on the space industry could be up to €1 billion.
This is partly down to private sector investments falling away in the economic slump.
Olivier Lemaitre, secretary-general of Eurospace, says he expects private customers will be investing less in satellite operations this year.
He believes that the space industry will need ‘huge institutional support’ for research and development activities. It is something, Lemaitre says, the EU countries do not ‘fully grasp’.
While member states may be making savings, the European Commission is pushing for investment in space. The EU Industry Commissioner, Thierry Breton, tweeted that the recent launch of SpaceX from the US was a reminder to Europeans that having ‘independent access’ to space is ‘crucial’.
That launch marked the first commercial venture for US space agency, NASA. Prior to this launch, the Americans had been paying Russia millions of dollars for access to Soyuz spacecraft since 2011.
Breton argues that Europe must be prepared to lead in space and set aside ‘the means necessary’ to do so.
In terms of launches, Europe is already lagging behind other powers. In 2019, China made 34 launches, Russia 21, the US 15 and the European Union only two.
However, Europe’s space industry is largely focused on commercial satellite operations, and not manned missions to the ISS.
How to relaunch Europe’s space mission
The lockdown limitations have impacted on work at the European Space Agency (ESA). Since March 16, the European Space Operations Centre has been operating on minimal staff to respect social distancing guidelines.
Another impact of coronavirus, the launch of the Sentinel 6 satellite has been delayed to November 2020.
It is part of the Copernicus program which monitors the earth’s atmosphere and sea-level rise.
The European Space Agency’s scientists stress that monitoring climate change with space technology is crucial to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
“They (the EU) need a lot of steps to be undertaken in order to get there,” says Josef Aschbacher, director Earth Observation Programmes at European Space Agency.
“In terms of pollution levels from factories, industry, traffic and so on, but also agriculture, forestry and many other sectors are really heavily impacted. Satellites monitor these changes but they can also help decision-makers with information that is relevant to implementing good policies.”
Early on into lockdown across European countries, it was thanks to Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite that we could monitor just how much pollution had dropped due to citizens staying home.
Budget cuts and policy re-thinks
The new EU budget proposal released last week set aside 14.8 billion euros for space, slightly below the previous budget.
Some MEPs are against cuts in this sector.
“These are important programs that need financing because they bring high returns in terms of the economy, as well as what is done in terms of research in the framework of the Horizon Europe program,” says Maria da Graça Carvalho (Portuguese MEP from EPP).
“I think that it is essentially the small and medium-size companies, with their innovative spirit, that will use the space data to create new services that can be very useful to all the citizens.”
In Europe, the space industry employs 230 thousand people, generates 8 billion euros in the manufacturing of equipment and 60 billion euros by selling data and services.
The sector is already helping out average citizens in lockdown. The pandemic has highlighted how important digital technologies have been in keeping us connected to work, school and family. Space solutions include satellite communications, satellite navigation, as well as technology from human spaceflight. Satellites can be useful in tracking pandemics, from spotting empty car parks to watching flows of people it can trace outbreaks.
Even in the realm of healthcare, the ESA states that the pandemic has already challenged health systems, but that ‘space-enabled telemedicine’ has helped medics care for patients remotely.