The deadline for submitting applications to the Contest organized by the European Innovation Council (EIC) the EU scientific council for the promotion of innovation, has closed on 31 May 2021. The winner, who can also be a group of participants, will receive €10 million. The ceremony will take place between November and December 2021. The aim of the European contest is to make a totally European solution for the launch of light terrestrial satellites more attractive and offer technological and cost advantages.
How can we not think of a European challenge to Starlink, Elon Musk’s American company that is creating a constellation of low-orbit satellites for low-latency broadband global satellite Internet access. As of May 2021, 1,433 satellites of the constellation are already in orbit.
But if Europe really wants to compete with the Americans, Chinese, Indians and Russians, it will have to invest heavily in development, not just in research.
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The European Innovation Council Contest
The task is not easy, because the chosen challenge is to develop a European technologically non-dependent solution for launching light satellites into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), which will enable dedicated low-cost launches with committed schedule and orbit.
When EIC launched this Contest in 2018, it was asked that the solution needs to be innovative, implementable, affordable in development and exploitation phases, and commercially viable. Applicants were required to take a holistic approach and produce results that move beyond (but are complementary to) existing solutions. Moreover, the solution should enhance on European access to space and associated technological non-dependence and thereby will provide strategic and competitive advantages for European companies, SMEs, universities, and research organisations.
Of course, €10 million is nothing compared to the $1.9 billion invested by Elon Musk in the Starlink project. Now, it is hoped that a strong synergy between public and private (as happens on any Continent) can put Europe among the giants of space policy.
Meanwhile, the EU launched its Space strategy with €16.9 billion for the next 7 years. So, the game just started.
Why does the EU want to compete with U.S., China, India and Russia?
Space technologies, data and services have become indispensable to the daily lives of European citizens. Moreover, development of space technology boosts jobs, growth, and investments in Europe and strengthens its role in the world. Space solutions can help Europe to respond better to new global and societal challenges: climate change, disaster management, security threats, migration, farming, transport, energy, and many more.
While Europe has a world-class space sector, innovation in space and changing demands are leading to an increased appearance of light and agile satellites. Consequently, space solutions will increasingly consider this trend. Small satellites are well-suited for most kinds of institutional and commercial use: wireless communications networks, Internet services, broader connectivity, scientific observation, data gathering, Earth imaging, and positioning. In terms of size, light satellites rely on a lower mass in comparison with conventional satellites. Their production is more cost-effective due to series manufacturing, agility and flexibility in operations. However, light satellites will also lead to an exponential increase in launch needs by 2020-2025.
Launch opportunities in Europe for this type of satellites are currently being standardised through auxiliary payload or rideshare solutions on the European launcher fleet. However, according to market studies, light satellites are expected to lead to a significant increase in launch needs by 2020-2025.
EIC thinks that a European solution for this class of satellites will contribute to achieve the following goals:
- internal market growth in the manufacturing sector of small launchers and satellites and the downstream services sector;
- European leading position in export markets globally in the field of light satellites and small launchers;
- space-enabled seamless solutions for European citizens thanks to operational light satellites and small launchers.
We will see at the end of the year who will take home the €10 million prize. But above all, we would like to understand if Europe will once again be able to truly reunite its forces to launch itself into the new space challenges.