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Europe Follows the USA and China in the Strategic Use of Space

From the series The war industry and European defence

Next Spring SpaceX will be 20 years old. The company founded by Elon Musk has rapidly achieved a key role in international space activity. The first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket has recently been recovered, reconditioned and reused for the tenth time.

SpaceX has already repeated this type of reflight 70 times or so; it allows for substantial savings when compared to the losses incurred in the first stages of a traditional rocket launch. It is for this reason that it is being considered as the standard for the future. According to NASA’s calculations, the average cost of launching a satellite into orbit has fluctuated around the level of $18,500 per kilogram for the whole period between 1970 and 2000. SpaceX has reduced this figure by seven times.

Internet constellations

In recent missions Falcon 9 rockets have put a total of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. The aim is to create a vast constellation designed to guarantee broadband internet connection worldwide, starting with North America SpaceX has 1,550 such satellites 540 km above the planet and has obtained authorisation from the American authorities to add another 2,800, which are planned to orbit 1,300 km above the Earth.

Starlink is not the only space internet project, but it is definitely the most advanced. However, it is not the only important project SpaceX has been involved in. SpaceX has completed three missions with its Crew Dragon vehicle transporting crews to the International Space Station. In this way it has provided the USA with a freedom of action which it has lacked since the end of the Shuttle missions. SpaceX has also been chosen for 40% of all the Pentagon’s launches for the period 2022-2026 (this should be around 15 launches). Finally, it has been commissioned to design the module for future lunar landings, as envisaged by the Artemis programme launched by Donald Trump.

Musk is famous as the founder of the electric car manufacturer Tesla. He is in competition with Jeff Bezos not only for the title of world’s richest man but also in the field of space technology. The owner of Amazon also owns Blue Origin, a company which was beaten by SpaceX in the race to participate in the Pentagon’s launch programme and in the development of the lunar module.

Amazon has kicked off Kuiper, a project for 3,226 satellites which replicates Starlink and should be deployed soon. The idea is to give Amazon’s cloud computing clients an alternative, or back-up, to terrestrial networks. It is no coincidence that Microsoft Azure, the global no. 2 in cloud services, and Google Cloud have recently formed an alliance for the use of the Starlink constellation. Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon is observing both constellations with interest.

DARPA and inventiveness

Since 2005 Falcon rockets have been funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Back then its CEO Steven Walker said that the team at SpaceX impressed [him] with their work ethic. There was some brashness there [and] some arrogance. [Eric Berger, Lift off, HarperCollins Publishers, 2021].

Richard Walters writes in his Financial Times column that SpaceX’s strategy is firmly anchored in the tradition of Silicon Valley. SpaceX didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel: the engines which power the Falcon 9 are Merlin engines from the 1970s which have been adapted for re-entry to Earth after the launch. In the same way as the pioneer producers of semiconductors and the pioneers of internet did back in the day, Space X used a time-tested strategy: ride on the back of government-funded research, while also using government as the anchor customer to fund the development of a new market [May 7th].

Morena Bernardini, chief strategist for ArianeGroup, told La Repubblica that, for each launch the Falcon 9 makes for the Pentagon, SpaceX is paid $180 million by the US Department of Defense. This means that SpaceX can charge private clients only $40-50 million for a launch. It therefore receives a sort of proxy subsidy from the US government.

The new generation Ariane

The received view in Europe is that the choices made by the European Space Agency (ESA) at its 2014 conference were too conservative: We should have had […] audacity stated the French economy minister Bruno Le Mare. At that time the ESA launched the new Ariane 6 rocket programme. This was a traditional rocket with an expendable first stage.

Ariane 6 should make its maiden flight in 2022; the pandemic has slowed down development. Each flight will cost $77 million instead of the $177 million of its predecessor Ariane 5. ArianeGroup, the company which produces the rocket, is developing a programme so that both the Prometheus engines used in the first stage and the entire section (called Themis) can be recovered and reconditioned. The expected timing of the first tests is 2023-2024 and the introduction of the new Prometheus powered rocket is planned for 2030. Ariane 6 will therefore have an active life of only eight years. This compares with 25 years for Ariane 5.

The race has been started by the socalled American NewSpace phenomenon. According to the Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, for Europe it is not the time for complacency. […] The standards for launchers are currently being redefined outside of Europe.


The NewSpace phenomenon has led to a series of private European initiatives for the development of mini-launchers. The table shows a brief summary. In part these are start-ups nurtured by the likes of Airbus, OHB (the manufacturer of Galileo satellites), the German space agency DLR, and the French agency CNES. All of these provide backing and funding.

Company Country Rocket Payloada (kg) Cost (€1m) Planned first launch First stage recovery

Venture Orbital Systems France Zéphyr 70 2.4 2024 No
Orbex UK Prime 150 2022 Yes
PLD Space Spain Miura 5 300 8.0 2024 Yes
Skyrora UK Skyrora XL 315 2022 Yesb
HyImpulse Germany SL11 400 4.5 2023 Yes
Isar Aerospace Germany Spectrum 1,000 10.0 2022 Yesb
Rocket Factory Ausburg Germany One 450/1,200 3.0 2022 Yes

Notes: a) in low orbit, from 250 to 1,300 km; b) recovery under consideration, but not for first launches.
Sources: Aviation Week & Space Technology and company websites.

According to the HyImpulse startup, these projects focus on two main aspects: the economic viability of small payloads, the recovery of the first stage, and immediacy — the ability to plan missions (for example, for military and security purposes) at short notice.

The management at ArianeGroup and Arianespace (the company that markets the launch capabilities of Ariane, Vega and Soyuz) have highlighted the problem of planning and how these new initiatives might replicate their existing capabilities. In short, any new rocket must have a lower payload capacity so as not to compete with Ariane rockets. In their opinion space launches are not merely a commercial proposition but are also an instrument of sovereignty which European institutions — such as ESA and the EU Commission — should defend. This is no easy feat given the nature of the continental institutions.

In his Agenda for 2025, the new director of ESA — the Austrian Josef Aschbacher — notes that: Europe unfortunately missed the boat in the dotcom, Big Tech and artificial intelligence (AI) domains. Europe can still avoid the same fate in space. […]. The successful maiden flights of Vega-C and Ariane 6 and their transition into exploitation are an absolute priority. […] ESA will work with Member States, the EC [European Commission] and industry to establish a way forward for space transportation.

Three constellations for three powers

Aschbacher has provided enthusiastic support for commissioner Breton’s proposal for an internet constellation. At the start of January, Breton announced that within a year the Commission would publish a plan for the launch of a constellation of satellites for internet connectivity based on quantum encryption by 2028. The aim is for these to be funded for use by 4.0 industry and to provide cover against cyber attacks to terrestrial structures, Some experts (such as Daniel Fiott of the Institute for Security Studies) have doubts over the practicality of such a constellation. This is because of the thermal and electromagnetic shielding required by any quantum cryptography and computing. However, it is clear that Brussels wants to play in the same league as the USA and China.

China has landed a rover on Mars and has recently launched the central module of its space station into orbit. The news broke around the world due to the alarm shown by the USA over the unguided re-entry of the Long March 5 rocket. At the same time the Beijing government created the China Satellite Network Group. This will most likely coordinate the activities of two national aerospace companies which had been separately developing an internet constellation. China has asked ITU (International Telecommunication Union) for permission to launch the 12,992 satellites of the Guowang constellation (national network) into orbit.

It is interesting to note how the three main imperialisms intend not only to develop autonomous access to space, but also to equip themselves with the three main components for its strategic use. The USA, EU and China all set their eyes on a positioning and navigation system (GPS, Galileo and Beidou), an observation system (NROL, Copernicus and Gaofen) and a constellation for internet connectivity.

Recently, the French company Eutelsat has partnered with the British government and the Indian company Bharti Airtel to finance and gain control of OneWeb, a company which is currently launching into orbit an internet constellation (so far it has launched 182 satellites out of a total 648). London does not hide the fact that it wants to use OneWeb for a navigation capability, especially as Brexit has deprived it of access to Galileo PRS. Eutelstat and Bharti are more focused on telecommunications.

Eutelstat is one of the nine European companies which have been called upon by Breton to work on the constellation proposed by the EU Commission. Eutelstat’s CEO recently told Les Echos that they will continue to do that, given that it has high priority in terms of scale and timing.

Lotta Comunista, May 2021