In December 2016, ministers from the ESA member states met in Lucerne to determine the roadmap for the European space sector for the years to come. Ahead of the event, the three German federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Bremen developed joint recommendations, with Bremen's interests being represented by its State Coordinator for the Space Sector, Dr Peter Vits. In the following interview Dr Vits talks about Bremen's strengths and opportunities.
What does the joint position paper for the 2016 ESA ministerial council conference propose?
In 2014 the ESA member states passed a resolution to develop and build the Ariane 6 launch vehicle and to operate the International Space Station (ISS) up to 2020. These were key decisions that it is hoped will secure independent European access to space and the future of human space travel. They are helping to maintain existing and create new jobs and to expand technological expertise at locations including Bremen. It is crucial that both decisions continue to be followed through with.
What joint recommendations did Bremen, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg make for the conference?
All ISS partners, with the exception of Europe, agreed to continue operating the ISS until 2024. However, both Germany and Europe should be making longer commitments than always just for two years. For the carrier rockets, we need to systematically implement the resolutions made in 2014. Moreover, close technological integration between Ariane 6 and Vega should result in greater German participation in Vega. For Bremen and for Airbus Safran Launchers, it is important to retain and expand responsibility for the upper stage of the rocket. At the same time, we recommend putting the focus on new and innovative satellite applications in the areas of navigation, telecommunications and Earth observation. These could be satellites that combine Earth observation with applications for the maritime industries or logistics, such as port security and coastal protection. I see a lot of potential here.
What could this mean specifically for Bremen?
Bremen-based companies and institutes could support these developments in individual projects. OHB SE, for example, is developing an advanced electrically powered telecommunications satellite called Electra that will weigh less than three tonnes. This would reduce launch costs and make the satellite a more attractive prospect for new users.
Germany, and Bremen in particular, already play a leading role in the field of robotic exploration. This role is going to be secured and built on going forward through German involvement in the robotics programmes.
Which projects or programmes might benefit from Bremen's robotics expertise?
Removing space debris – or preventing it from being created in the first place – is an issue that will become increasingly urgent. And it's not just a matter for Europe of course. This is a global problem. Regulations need to be put in place to avoid the creation of space junk. The second point covers the documentation and measurement of existing space junk and the prevention of accidents. And the third point: what do we do with it all? Catch it, vaporise it under controlled conditions or move it into safe orbit? Thanks to its capabilities gained in robotics and in the Automated Transfer Vehicle project, Bremen already offers technologies that can and should be used to solve these problems. Airbus Defence and Space, for example, have started to build the European Service Module (ESM). The ESM is a key element of Orion, a next-generation spacecraft that NASA will be using to send astronauts into space for the first time since the space shuttle programme came to an end.
The big question when it comes to space law is who does the debris actually belong to? And who is responsible for getting rid of it? Who should be paying for this?
On the other hand, it's not always clear who, for example, is allowed to dispose of an old satellite that is 'in the way'. At the moment, the country where the launch took place is liable for any damage that occurs. But of course they just pass the liability to the country that commissioned the launch – it's going to be very interesting to see how these legal questions and licensing procedures get resolved.
How do you assess the future of Bremen as a hub for the space industry?
Very positively, because in Bremen we have everything that a hub for the space industry needs. That includes three industrial giants, three universities, lots of suppliers, an integrated subcontracting network for electrical and mechanical services, and research institutes such as the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM and the Centre of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity. Maintaining this status quo is the minimum requirement; building on it is our goal. To this end, we need to do better at coordinating and providing information so that all our stakeholders can work more closely together and jointly harness the opportunities on offer. We have to think more holistically, as one Bremen location, and not just in the interests of the individual companies.
At the end of September you attended the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico. What was your role there as Bremen's State Coordinator for the Space Sector?
The IAC is a key event for scientists, agencies and commercial organisations – basically the key decision-makers of the industry. I was mainly there to promote the 2018 IAC in Bremen to delegates and exhibitors. But I also took the opportunity to hold discussions with political decision-makers from Germany, which I think is important too. As state coordinator it is my job to hold lots of talks, to represent the interests of Bremen's space industry, and to gather information on things like new technologies, developments and programmes so that I can then report on this to Bremen's state government, mayor and Bremeninvest.
Bremen's State Coordinator for the Space Sector is Dr Peter Vits, T +49 (0) 151 510 55 374, firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find out more about the Bremen aerospace cluster from Dr Barbara Cembella, cluster manager for the space sector, T +49 (0)421 9600 340, email@example.com.
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