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What is the EU’s new space plan and why does it matter?

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By Christopher Pitchers
A Sentinel-3 satellite orbits Earth.
A Sentinel-3 satellite orbits Earth.   -   Copyright  Pierre Carril/ESA-Pierre Carril

The European Commission laid out new proposals on Tuesday for its third major satellite network to complement its existing systems.

Currently, there is Galileo, a global navigation system, and Copernicus, used for earth observation.

This new satellite constellation will ensure the EU’s own independence when it comes to the security of its communication systems, which are highly dependent on non-European satellites orbiting the Earth.

Essentially, it aims to make connections secure and reliable for European systems, ranging from air and road traffic management to search and rescue operations at sea to military and border-area surveillance.

Why is this important?

In an ever-increasingly digital world, safeguarding the EU’s communication networks is vital to ensure information does not fall into the wrong hands.

This can mean avoiding non-European entities from snooping on EU leaders' telephone conversations, for example.

It is crucial too for the bloc’s own cyber resilience, so helping prevent cyber-attacks on the type of systems mentioned previously.

The proposal also aims to increase connectivity in areas of strategic importance like Africa and the Arctic, where signal black spots are ubiquitous.

Brussels also wants to deal with the increasing problem of space debris left behind from other satellites.

It is calling this an approach to space traffic management, but it does not have the power to act in this area according to the EU’s treaties, so for the moment it will assess the requirements by engaging with member states and relevant stakeholders to see what can be done collectively.

How will it impact your life?

Satellites are much more important to daily life than one might think.

The Commission wants to extend the availability of high-speed broadband and uninterrupted connectivity throughout the continent, removing any dead zones along the way.

In that way, every European citizen will have access to internet anywhere and across every member state.

The new satellite constellation also would provide a backup to the EU’s Galileo and Copernicus systems if they were to go down, which according to Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), would have serious consequences on Earth.

"Just imagine that satellites would be switched off for one day. That would be a disaster. The weather forecast would be very bad...ok...one can say we can live with rain and sunshine, but it has a huge implication on the economy," Aschbacher told Euronews.

"The weather forecast from space contributes €61 billion in economic benefits to the European economy. So, enormous economic impacts on the weather forecast.

“Navigation - if you switch off navigation satellites, of course, navigation doesn't work anymore,” he added.

"Telecommunication, stock markets - everything is dependent on satellites today. So, yes we're absolutely dependent already and this dependence will increase in the future."

What about the cost? Where is the money coming from?

The total estimated cost currently stands at €6 billion, with €2.4 billion coming out of the EU budget, from member states and contributions from the ESA.

The Commission hopes to get the remaining amount from private sector investments.

But as with most EU projects, initial estimates are normally exceeded, so is the project really going to be worth it?

German MEP Niklas Nienass says this will depend on what services it provides that benefit citizens. 

"The European Union must provide satellite-based internet access for citizens to a price that everybody can afford," Neinass told Euronews.

He added that if that can be assured, then a higher budget would be more acceptable.

“We're currently talking about a price of €6 billion. This could increase depending on the services that you add on, but €6 billion for 440 million people living in Europe, that's €13 to ensure that everybody has a decent internet connection…I think most people are willing to pay that,” the Green MEP said.

When can we expect it?

Nienass told Euronews that if Brussels gets its act together, the new satellite system could be operational by 2025.

The current timeline given by the Commission says a similar time for the initial service, but full service won’t be until mid-2027 at the earliest.

The proposal must also navigate its way through the European Parliament and negotiations with member states, which can take some time.