ITU News caught up with Stéphane Israël, Chief Executive Officer of Arianespace, to learn more about the launcher landscape and why international cooperation is vital to a vibrant and sustainable space sector.
Tell us about the European satellite launch business in terms of production and operations.
The European launcher landscape is unique and based on cooperation. Unlike other space powers having their own access to space, the European launch sector is the fruit of several countries pooling their industries and skills into the production of Ariane and Vega, both launched from the Guiana Space Center.
For instance, 13 countries are involved in the development of Ariane 6, each receiving shares in its production proportional to its participation in the European Space Agency (ESA) launcher program. Three countries are leading this: France, Germany and Italy.
What we call the “geographical return” has a cost, but is also a very efficient way to consolidate strong European support to Ariane and Vega, both key assets for Arianespace and its customers.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your operations over the past year?
At the start of the pandemic, operations at the European spaceport in Guiana were slowed to control the epidemic. Our launch manifest suffered delays, but thanks to the mobilization of our teams and clients, we were able to deliver crucial missions on time from three spaceports: CSG [Guiana], Baikonur [Kazakhstan], and Vostochny [Russian Federation].
We managed to launch 10 times in 2020.
This year, we have already launched four times. And if everything goes smoothly, we could launch more than 15 times, including the flagship project James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) aboard an Ariane 5.
What role does international cooperation play in space development?
International cooperation is mandatory in the successful use of space. Bringing the best assets from each country ensures the development of innovative technologies and ambitious projects.
Aside from this practical aspect, international cooperation allows smaller actors to benefit from otherwise inaccessible services.
The International Space Station is the perfect example to show how far cooperation can take us.
Space powers are now shooting for the Moon again, this time for a lasting human presence around and on it. This will be done through cooperation, with Europe joining the United States and the ambitious Artemis programme to reach this goal.
International cooperation is a fertile ground that allows us to reach further for the stars.
According to the UNOOSA Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, 2020 saw the largest number of satellites ever launched in a single year: 1,283. What kind of challenges and opportunities can we expect with the growing number of satellites that will be put into service over the next few years?
Crucial challenges for space sustainability lie ahead of us with the multiplication of objects in orbit. The trend observed in 2020 is accelerating this year: as of early June, we are already on the way to beating last’s year record. More than 1,200 satellites have already been put into orbit since the beginning of the year.
We must remain vigilant and ensure everyone has the same long-term access to space, especially in low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Potential collisions between objects in orbit must be prevented by fixing clear rules and establishing a double system of Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management. The whole space sector must work on a collaborative basis to maintain a responsible and sustainable use of space, to protect our ability to bring the associated benefits down to Earth.
What does a healthy low-Earth orbit economy look like?
LEO offers huge opportunities for satellite operators and governments –- be it for secured communication services, connectivity or Earth observation. Revenue streams are high and attract many projects. But to remain healthy, LEO must be regulated as it is the case for the geostationary orbit. Many projects translate into many satellites, at an unprecedented scale.
In this crucial Decade of Action to deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, could sustainable space use become the 18th SDG?
Space is certainly a common good: a place for humanity that must remain accessible in the long run.
Many space applications are crucial on Earth, whether for science, technology, medicine, connectivity, security and so on.
This is why space must be preserved, and its sustainability is a good candidate to become the 18th SDG.
How can an organization like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) work with the aerospace industry to ensure space governance outcomes are for the good of all?
ITU plays a key role in managing radio frequencies and associated orbits. ITU is a real partner for Arianespace and its customers, in a constant dialogue.
ITU has been promoting the responsible use of space within the UN framework since 1963. Nevertheless, Space Traffic Management falls outside its mandate.
The positioning of satellites in orbit is not regulated today by any global framework, despite the exponentially growing number of objects in orbit. Short-term initiatives – through, for example, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) – can encourage all to pull in the same direction.
Expanding ITU’s purview to include Space Situational Awareness could help in monitoring and promoting responsible behaviour in space. And for that, exchanging with the private sector is of utmost importance.