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Last Updated: Monday, 4 April, 2005, 21:11 GMT 22:11 UK
Europe's space industry takes off
By Tim Bowler
BBC World Service business reporter

Artists impression of Europe's Huygens probe approaching Saturn's largest moon, Titan
Europe has been celebrating the success of the Huygens mission

This year has seen a remarkable first for Europe - the successful landing of the Huygens space probe on Saturn's moon, Titan.

In addition, Europe's Mars Express has spotted signs of recent volcanic activity on Mars, Smart 1 has begun its search for water-ice on the Moon, and the Rosetta probe is en route to become the first spacecraft to orbit and then land on a comet.

Europe's space scientists are catching up fast with their Russian and US counterparts

But despite these successes, one in five workers in Europe's space industry have lost their jobs in recent years because of a slump in demand for satellites from the telecoms sector.

Yet help could now be at hand thanks to a new player in the space business - the European Union.

Leading role

The French-based company Arianespace is a key player in the European space industry.

It has been responsible for putting more than 250 satellites into orbit, and last year it ordered 30 new Ariane 5 rockets from the European aerospace giant EADS.

There are good prospects for the future with a new and reinforced European space policy
Pascale Sourisse, chief executive Alcatel Space

This multi-billion dollar order has put rocket production on a much firmer economic footing, says Arianespace's chief executive, Jean Yves Le Gall.

"Arianespace has half of the market of the commercial launches," he says. "In the field of the scientific programme, Europe has got tremendous results. Europe today plays a leading role and with probably a much more efficient system than its competitors."

The German city of Bremen is home to the team which makes the second stage of Europe's massive Ariane 5 rocket - which carry up to 10 tonnes - or two satellites at once - into orbit.

"At the moment Arianespace foresees a need for about five second stages from us a year," says Richard Pitt, of EADS Space Transportation.

"We have only just had the qualification flight so we have to do analysis of all the measurements, so we'll be making fewer stages this year, but then we will ramp up production next year."

Boldly going

The French company Alcatel Space has joined forces with Italy's Finmeccanica to create the world's third largest satellite manufacturer.

Ariane 5 rocket
Europe's giant Ariane 5 rocket can carry two satellites at once into orbit

"The market is recovering a little bit," says Pascale Sourisse, Alcatel Space's chief executive.

"Something that needs to be kept in mind is that a very substantial part of the satellite market is not based on the commercial market, it's based on the institutional market. That means government programmes, space agency programmes," he says.

"There are good prospects for the future with a new and reinforced European space policy, the first example of it being the Galileo programme."

Galileo is Europe's $4bn (2.1bn) satellite navigation system and will eventually rival the existing American GPS system, which Europe argues is ultimately controlled by the US military.

Galileo is a joint project between the EU and the European Space Agency (Esa), and its project manager, Xavier Benedicto, believes millions of people will eventually benefit from using the system in their cars and phones.

Private funding

But some analysts caution against too much optimism.

They say even with EU involvement, there will not be much more money pouring into the space industry's coffers.

Rachel Villain, of research group Euroconsult, says the EU wants businesses to stump up some of the cash through private finance initiatives (PFI).

It is a model the EU has already adopted for Galileo.

"The EU has warned the space industry that it cannot put in a lot of money in addition to the money that comes from Esa," she says.

"The EU has said the space industry will have to commit itself more and more in the form of new financing initiatives, as it is done in the UK with PFI."

Hi-tech future

Away from the commercial sector, it is human spaceflight that grabs most of the headlines.

Europe funds a 16-strong team of astronauts, but putting people in space is extremely expensive, and there is always the question of whether government budgets would go further by simply relying on robots.

But Arianespace argues having an independent access to space is politically and economically important for Europe.

"Having a space industry is very important for countries," says Mr Le Gall. "In the US, the space industry is a kind of driver for the world's aeronautics industry and in Europe we must have a space industry for the same reasons."

Listen to the full World Business Report
"Human spaceflight grabs most of the headlines."

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