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EU nears agreement to launch satellites from US territory

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EU member states are close to greenlighting the launch of European navigation satellites from US territory early next year to avoid disruption in service provision, EURACTIV has learnt.

The Council is likely to soon pass a decision “authorising the opening of negotiations” between the United States “laying down security procedures for the launch of Galileo satellites from United States’ territory”, a draft text, seen by EURACTIV, states.

The move, first reported by Politico in April, is the European Commission’s latest attempt to keep the satellite constellation in service after a year and a half of wrangling to find a launcher – as the European-made rocket Ariane 6 is late to the market.

The EU’s latest batch of Galileo navigation satellites, dubbed as the ‘European GPS’, were meant to go into space in the spring of 2022, to ensure the continuity of a navigation service used by billions of citizens and the military.

The EU’s decision to launch from the US follows its estimations that the current constellation will no longer be safe after mid-2024, people with knowledge of the talks said, urging for a solution to be found before the end of this year.

“Having to resort to launching two Galileo satellites from American soil on a SpaceX rocket is a disastrous signal for the European Union’s strategic autonomy,” Christophe Grudler (Renew, France), shadow rapporteur on the space programme, told EURACTIV.

“I understand why the Commission is working on such a scenario, we no longer have any choice but to launch from the United States to ensure that Galileo works properly,” Grudler said.

“But this remains a failure for European space policy,” he added. “Member states, ESA and the industry all share responsibility for this situation.”

Only option left

After Russia withdrew its Soyuz rockets from France’s launchpad in French Guyana in retaliation to European sanctions, the European Commission turned to ArianeSpace’s rockets, the only option left for a launch from European soil.

As Ariane 5 was discontinued to make room for the latest model Ariane 6, the Europeans hoped to use the next generation launchers.

But Ariane 6 will be more than a year late. The first launch would take place “not too late” in 2024, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) chairman said earlier this week but refused to commit to a full launch before mid-2024, according to reporting by Reuters.

However, the lack of certainty around the launch date has necessitated a plan B, to avoid jeopardising services.

The European Commission “is taking all necessary steps to ensure that the Galileo constellation continues to provide outstanding services in the months and years to come,” one spokesperson for the institution told EURACTIV.

Keep the satellites safe

A confirmed agreement with the US remains a long way away, however, as any deal would need to go through the EU Council’s Security Committee, which deals with issues related to the security of information, EU ambassadors, and ministers.

But the goal is to push it through as fast as possible, people with the knowledge of the file said.

The idea “is to give a mandate to the Commission so it can negotiate that all the security and sensitivity of the satellites is guaranteed,” one EU diplomat told EURACTIV.

The agreement should protect the integrity of the satellites and the information contained, including EU classified information, EURACTIV understands.

The US would have to put in place measures to protect the space assets as a whole the entire time they are on its territory, and not only on the launch site.

An agreement would also protect the exchange or provision of classified information between the EU and the US if there were any.

Independent access to space

These issues highlight the EU’s struggle to secure independent access to space, as the bloc seeks to become a bigger power in a contested area.

In November 2022, EU institutions reached a political agreement to launch a new secure communication satellite constellation, dubbed IRIS2.

In January, Internal Market and Space Commissioner Thierry Breton said that the EU “will soon formally launch the European Space Launcher Alliance to define a technological roadmap and a holistic European approach to launchers”.

“We must develop a fully-fledged European launcher strategy that will ensure [Europe’s] needs, its global position and its autonomy for the next 20 to 30 years,” Breton added.

In the early stages of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the EU executive tried its luck in pushing ArianeSpace to prioritise the European Commission’s order.

In a letter signed by Breton to ArianeSpace dated a year ago, seen by EURACTIV, the Commission asked the rocket-maker to prioritise the institutions’ launches instead of following its regular calendar involving private companies and governments.

To do so, it invoked the “force majeure” clause in reference to the war in Ukraine and the unforeseeable withdrawal of Moscow from the launchpad.

ArianeSpace denied their request for prioritisation, EURACTIV understands.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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