Europe's presence in space has been increasingly visible in recent years. To cite a recent example, the 16 May launch of NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavour carried the biggest, most ambitious science payload ever delivered to the International Space Station, the European Space Agency-built alpha magnetic spectrometer - a 6.9t particle detector physicists hope will help unravel the secrets of so-called "dark matter".
Endeavour's crew included Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori - who, on boarding the ISS was greeted by countryman Paolo Nespoli. Meanwhile, Nespoli and his ISS crewmates have been enjoying food, water, air and spare parts delivered by two ESA-built automated transfer vehicle robotic cargo vessels.
While trips to the ISS make headlines, and it is to behoped, strike blows for science and international co-operation, Europe's political leaders are clear-headed about why they support spaceflight, with one theme playing consistently: space is about benefits for Europe's citizens.
The European Commission spelled this vision out with admirable clarity in an April 2011 paper detailing its priorities for a new, "reinforced" European space policy, which will emerge from the coming rounds of EU budget making. As commission vice-president for industry Antonio Tajani puts it, space is about improving the safety and daily lives of Europeans. He says: "Space is strategic for Europe's independence, job creation and competitiveness. Space activities create high-skilled jobs, innovation, new commercial opportunities and improve citizens' well-being and security." And, he adds: "In order to achieve our goals, Europe needs to keep an independent access to space."
First priorities are realisation of the flagship Galileo navigation and global monitoring for environmental and security (GMES) satellite constellations. Galileo, a European counterpart to the US GPS system, is behind time and budget - 18 spacecraft are expected to be in orbit by 2014, six years after the system was to be fully operational, and Galileo will need 24 spacecraft to provide global coverage - but the Commission has underscored the need to get the constellation deployed "within a reasonable amount of time".
© European Space Agency
ESA's Ariane 5 is the cornerstone of European access to orbit
One clear benefit of satellite navigation came on stream earlier this year, when Europe's EGNOS safety-of-life service went live. A network of 40 EU-owned EGNOS ground stations take signals from GPS - and, eventually, Galileo - and enhance their accuracy to less than 1m (3ft). As with the wide area augmentation system available in the USA, aircraft with EGNOS receivers can now make super-precision approaches in Europe. And, says Tajani, the free-to-use signals are a public service, so private companies are encouraged to develop receivers capable of exploiting them.
The civilian-use GMES system is intended to enhance understanding of the sea, air, land and atmospheric environment, as a basis for policy making, and the data generated would also be available for private use. The EC wants to see GMES fully operational by 2014.
A third priority is the establishment of an independent, European space situational awareness (SSA) system. This would be a single radar installation somewhere in Europe supplemented by 20 optical telescopes at four sites equally spaced near the equator, to track the orbiting debris that poses a risk to satellites and other spacecraft. The system, complementing similar observation carried out by the USA and possibly at some point including some space-based telescopes, would also in principle provide some guide to so-called near-Earth objects: meteors and asteroids that could, if they struck the Earth, cause immeasurable damage.
The system would be expensive - ESA's SSA programme office foresees an initial five-year development phase starting in 2012 or 2013 with a €600-700 million budget - but looks like a good investment. Orbiting debris and solar radiation are two space-based hazards that the Commission estimates causes around €332 million ($480 million) of damage to European assets annually.
The EC has also identified continued European participation in space exploration as a policy priority. As the Commission paper points out - and as programmes ranging from ISS participation to detailed pictures of Mars currently being beamed home by ESA's Mars Express planetary orbiter amply support - "Europe is a partner that is known for its competence and reliability in this sector, but it is not making the most of its potential because its actions are too piecemeal".
Thus, the Commission hopes to give momentum to Europe's role in four aspects of international co-operation: development of critical technologies (life-support systems, for example), scientific exploitation of the ISS, access to space (through Europe's indigenous launch capabilities) and the establishment of an international forum to allow the EU to co-ordinate Europe's space activities.
ATV Johannes Kepler (top), docking with the ISS in February
In keeping with the overall theme of space benefiting citizens, European leaders are keen that exploration should not be seen as an esoteric activity. As Frank de Winne, the astronaut and Belgian air force general who was the first non-American or Russian to command an ISS mission, has put it, Europe's annual budget for space exploration of around €400 million represents about one euro per citizen and good value, with spin-off technologies from life-support systems development feeding through into medical care, as just one example.
But space exploration is, he adds, no longer a matter of nation-versus-nation competition; it can only be a matter of international partnership and it is important to play a leading role. He says: "Europe should be part of exploration because we want to bring our European values to this venture."
Lastly, the Commission's list of priorities includes the agreement of a European space industry policy. This should boost industrial competitiveness in a sector that generates economic growth, high-quality jobs and opportunities for product and service innovation beyond the space sector. It should also "increase the excellence of European research".
Of all the industries associated with space, and with the benefits of space activity to citizens on the ground, satellite telecommunications stands out, with the Commission calling it a "key space sector, generating the largest revenues in the space industry, in both Europe and the rest of the world". The Commission's policy outline sees communications satellites as having a clear role in the so-called Digital Agenda for Europe, which aims to bring basic broadband to all Europeans by 2013 and 30Mbit/s internet speeds by 2020.
According to Eric Beranger, the chief executive of Astrium Services who has just been elected chairman of the European Satelllite Operators' Association, the policy outline is "an encouraging first step". Stressing the significance of satellites as the only means of providing instantaneous and universal access to communications services and generally driving growth in the European space economy, he nevertheless is concerned that an eventual European space policy is "technology neutral"; that is, there must be no subsidies - directly, or through taxes or regulation - to any technologies competing to provide services.
Also, he says, there must be regulatory stability; a communications satellite has a 10- or 15-year lifespan, and the operator must begin such a project with confidence that a frequency allocation and other regulatory constraints will be stable for the lifetime of the spacecraft.
What is important for policy makers to recognise, he says, is that satellite operators' business model is well proven and their industry is based on private investment, so the benefits that flow to European citizens have little impact on them as taxpayers. "This is a very successful model for Europe, and the space policy must allow this success to continue and flourish," he says.
Learn how Europe has been taking the political lead in space