PARIS: European nations agreed on Wednesday to increase spending on space by 17% to keep pace with the United States and China in two days of intense trading overshadowed by soaring energy prices.

The European Space Agency (ESA) said its 22 member states had agreed to provide 16.9 billion euros ($17.5 billion) for projects from the search for past life on Mars to climate research in 2023- 25, compared to 14.5 billion euros in the previous period.

“Europe is ambitious in space and this is an important signal that is being sent here from Paris,” said German aerospace coordinator Anna Christmann after chairing the ministerial swap round held every three years.

ESA has also named astronaut recruits including the first disabled ‘Parastronaut’, British Paralympic athlete John McFall, who was congratulated by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Paris-based ESA had asked its 22 nations to allocate 18.5 billion euros to finance rocket launches, satellites and Europe’s participation in planetary research.

ESA’s director-general Josef Aschbacher said the €2.4 billion in extra pledges marked a significant achievement given struggling economies, but acknowledged the programs would be adjusted to fill a gap with the 4 billions more than ESA had wanted.

“We’ll have to see what … might not be done at the same scale as was planned before,” he said.

The ExoMars rover mission to Mars, which had included Russia, will go ahead with US support, he added.

The deal leaves Europe behind the United States and looks closely at China, whose space budgets are not public but which has made space exploration and research a top priority.

But officials said Europe remained a leader in Earth observation, including climate research, after signing on to a record increase and meeting targets at an earlier meeting in 2019.

“You always ask for more to get the most… Budgets everywhere in Europe are tight. Despite this, we have maintained our space ambitions,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Reuters.

ESA, whose Ariane rocket pioneered commercial launches but now faces delays and intense competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is trying to maintain a key role in space while balancing the political constraints of its large nations. and small.

Germany, the main contributor, put its foot down on aspects of the proposed package as talks dragged on, another delegate said.

France and Germany have jostled for influence at ESA in recent years, with Berlin overtaking Paris as the largest contributor in a 2019 move that took the French government by surprise and created tensions between the two countries.

Le Maire said France was once again the top European investor, apparently referring to a larger budget including non-ESA items.

GEO-RETURN

The grueling funding exercise in a hangar-like temporary convention center near the Eiffel Tower resulted in back-to-back rounds in which nations contributed to areas such as exploration.

Ministers and officials took their haggling of horses to a dinner at the Paris Opera on Tuesday and into the night as several nations staged separatist meetings.

Small countries have been seen to make painful efforts to find budgets that guarantee new skilled jobs under ESA’s quid-pro-quo ‘geo-return’ scheme.

France has long worried about a system in which small nations get a dollar of work for every dollar paid in each program, saying the resulting loss of economic scale is partly to blame for Europe’s problems competing with SpaceX.

But a collateral statement between major space launch nations France, Germany and Italy on Tuesday offered Paris an overhaul of the iron-clad funding rules while backing a new generation of microlaunchers in what was seen as a concession to Germany.

“France has never believed that a small launch service could survive in Europe as a viable business given the current and projected government demand for such services,” said Peter de Selding, co-founder and publisher of SpaceIntelReport.com.

(US$1 = 0.9709 euros)

(Reporting by Tim HepherEditing by Bernadette Baum and Mark Potter)

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