The European Union’s space research has been managed from Prague since May this year. This fact is the culmination of a series of events that began with the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Space Agency in 2008, followed by the placement of the European GNSS Agency (GSA) in Prague in 2012 and the opening of ESA BIC space incubators in Prague in 2016 and in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second biggest city, in 2018. Also in 2018, the European Union decided to establish its new EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), which was approved by the European Parliament in April 2021. Prague was selected as the headquarters of the new agency thanks to good experience with the operation of the European GNSS Agency, which was relocated from Brussels to Prague in 2021, and intensive cooperation between Czechs and the European Space Agency.
Cooperation between the Czech Republic and the European Space Agency
In 2008, the Czech Republic became the first post-communist country to join the European Space Agency (ESA). Today, the space industry in the Czech Republic comprises approximately one hundred companies and research centres, more than sixty of which have received contracts from ESA. These entities are linked to supplier and subcontractor companies that provide necessary technological support. A number of startups have been established and incubated in the Czech ESA BIC incubators.
In 2016, ESA opened the Czech Republic’s first ESA BIC space incubator, which is operated by CzechInvest. This was followed in 2018 by the opening of a branch in Brno. ESA BIC is an international network comprising incubators in 20 European countries. The ESA BIC Czech Republic incubators in Prague and Brno support Czech startups that use space patents, satellite navigation and/or remote Earth observation for their products and services. The goal is to bring these technologies into everyday life and to help innovative projects to participate in space missions within the European space programme. Nearly thirty Czech technology startups have passed through the incubators.
Cooperation between the Czech Republic and EUSPA
In 2010, the Czech Republic won the tender to host the administrative headquarters of the European GNSS Agency, which began operating in Prague in 2012. A major role in this was played by the Czech side’s negotiations with, among others, France and Great Britain, leaders in the area of space research in the EU, and its ability to convince them that Prague had suitable facilities, together with promising space projects of Czech companies. The fact that the negotiating team included Vladimír Remek, the first non-American and non-Soviet cosmonaut and the first Czech in space (he spent seven days on the Salyut space station in 1978), also had a positive impact.
Thanks to the successful operation of the headquarters in Prague, the EU decided in 2019 to place in the Czech capital its new EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), which will also take over the Czech GSA competencies. EUSPA commenced its operations in Prague on 12 May 2021. In the Czech Republic, EUSPA manages a network of satellites and several satellite services. It is responsible for twenty-six satellites in orbit. Two more will be launched at the end of 2021 and four over the course of next year. Their task will be to improve the European Galileo navigation system.
EUSPA manages several satellite services in connection with the competencies taken over from the GSA. These include the Galileo global navigation system, which is used, for example, by drivers and paramedics and is intended to compete with the American GPS, Russian Glonass and Chinese Bei Dou. It also manages the EGNOS navigation system, which is increasingly being used at airports. The system improves the accuracy of existing navigation systems and assists with landing aircraft, even in the event of airport equipment failure. EGNOS also supports farmers, who can use satellite imagery to determine how their crops are doing and then adjust their use of fertilisers and chemical sprays accordingly.
EUSPA is now taking over the new European Copernicus project, which is focused on remote Earth observation and is used for monitoring in the case of natural disasters, security crises and construction of infrastructure. The agency also newly manages the GOVSATCOM platform intended for secure satellite communication. EUSPA actively collaborates with startups, which it motivates to use the Copernicus, EGNOS and Galileo systems.
The organisation’s management, which decides how command-and-control centres handle situations that arise, is concentrated at EUSPA headquarters in Prague. Its priority is to keep the systems in good working order and to maintain their security. Bringing the headquarters of EUSPA to Prague is a major success for the Czech Republic. The significance of this institution is evident in the fact that one-tenth of the European economy is now dependent on space research. EUSPA’s budget for the period 2021-2027 is approximately EUR 9 billion. In Prague, EUSPA employs roughly 300 people from 22 EU countries, 30% of whom are Czech. The number of EUSPA employees in Prague is expected to rise to as many as 600 over the next few years.