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The global space industry is rapidly changing as the once completely government-driven activity of space exploration is partly being taken over by private companies – the so-called NewSpace sector. Many of the most innovative companies and decision-makers in the field met in Luxembourg on 16-17 November 2017 at the NewSpace Europe conference to discuss economic opportunities, the conditions for start-up companies, the access to funding and the future role of governments in space business.

Space business is very challenging: space transportation is extremely costly, the technological risks are high and investors can only expect return in the long term. Additionally, there are complex legal implications inherent in the exploitation of resources in space. “NewSpace needs new conditions for start-ups and entrepreneurs,” Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA) pointed out in his speech.

The Luxembourg government is well aware of this and launched its Space Resources initiative 18 months ago precisely to provide good conditions for companies in the field of the exploration and use of space resources. A recently voted law provides a unique legal and regulatory framework for companies harvesting resources in space – the first such law in Europe and the second in the world after the United States. Today, the country is well established in the field and has attracted several leading companies to locate here. “Our first deep-space mission will be a Luxembourg-flagged activity,” said Peter Marquez, Vice President of Global Engagement at asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the support we have received from the government and the surrounding ecosystem.”

Funding for success

Private business also needs to make profits – a key topic for space companies that need to offer attractive prospects to potential investors. To be economically viable, technological progress that makes spacecraft lighter, less expensive and more performant is crucial. Karim Michel Sabbagh, President and CEO of Luxembourg-based satellite giant SES, said that his company aims to be able to service satellites already in orbit in space without having to go back and forth to Earth. Gwynne Shotwell, President and CEO of SpaceX that designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, presented her company’s work which is focused on developing reusable rockets that can bring people to the moon or Mars and then take them back to Earth after a successful mission.

Conference panellists also discussed the often-cited perception that European investors are more risk adverse than their American counterparts, and more interested in putting their money into well-known assets such as art or real estate than in science fiction-sounding start-ups. “Europe offers a lot of opportunities to develop early-stage prototypes with university-based or other public R&D funding,” said Finish entrepreneur Pekka Laurila, co-founder and CFO of microsatellite developer ICEYE. “But raising more considerable funding is difficult, and we had to go to Silicon Valley to find investors.”

Innovative Europe

While the US is often seen as the Eldorado for high-tech start-ups, Europe nevertheless has much to offer. Thibaud Delourme, Team Leader for Space Data for Societal Challenges and Growth at the European Commission, pointed out that the EU has world-leading thematic knowledge and research centres in the space field. Its Earth Observation programme is the largest in the world, and the data produced can be used free of charge by any company to develop new skills and services. ICEYE CEO Pekka Laurila emphasised that even if his firm has US funding it intends to keep its headquarters in Finland. The advantages of this are many: the company can benefit from funding provided by the EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, easily export its services and technology all over the world and hire experts from other countries in a much easier way than if it was located in the US.

While public funding is becoming less important for the space sector than in the past, governments still have a key role to play, not least as facilitators and as commissioning clients. Speakers called for increased boldness in government ambitions and programmes in order to spur the industry forward. The forward-looking policies of Luxembourg were highlighted as an excellent example for other countries to follow.

The NewSpace Europe conference brings together thought leaders from the commercial space sector to explore the opportunities and challenges of opening the space frontier to human settlement. Organised in the United States since 2006, this first European edition was hosted by Luxembourg’s Ministry of the Economy against the backdrop of its Space Resources initiative, which, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Étienne Schneider, is pushing Luxembourg forward as a European hub for the exploration and use of space resources.

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