Portugal’s 20 years at ESA in review
AED Cluster Portugal looks at the path of the Portuguese space industry in the past two decades, as a member of the European Space Agency.

On 14 November 2000, Portugal officially joined the European Space Agency (ESA). This was almost a year after the signing between the then Minister of Science and Technology, José Mariano Gago, and the Director General of ESA at the time, Antonio Rodotà, which admitted Portugal as the 15th Member State of ESA.

In these 20 years of Portuguese participation in ESA, much has changed. The growth of the space sector in the world and the impact of its technology is visible (and used) by everyone. But what is the Portuguese contribution to this evolution? How has our industry developed during these two decades and what is the importance of being part of this European community?

The representatives of the space sector from the Board of Directors of AED Cluster Portugal take a look back stock on these two decades…


1. Going back 20 years, where and how did Portugal fit into the international space scene? And nowadays, where and how are we?

20 years ago, Portugal had the experience of participating in the development process, component manufacturing and data exploration of the POSAT1 satellite. But we were cut off from the space industry’s supply chains. There was no training for Aerospace Engineers in Portugal and the connections between the Academy and Companies with this sector were marginal.

Today, we train Aerospace Engineers, we have an internship program at ESA and NASA and about 60 entities, including companies, entities from the scientific and technological system and academia. Many of these entities have a solid participation in the supply chains of major European system integrators, in several ESA flagship projects and are already starting to integrate global supply chains.

Today, we also have a level of ambition that includes a prominent role in the creation of a multilateral entity focused on the study and monitoring of the entire Atlantic Ocean, with intensive use of satellite infrastructure, as well as creating a Space Port in the Azores, which benefit from an unique location in Europe. The Azores are a hot spot for Space, where Ariane launches from Kourou have been supported for many years and operations of satellites from various space missions also. With the growth of infrastructure and resources in Santa Maria, Portugal has been able to obtain contracts not only with large institutional clients (ESA, EUMETSAT, GSA / EUSPA), but also with “New Space” actors, who operate in the global market.


2. What were the biggest milestones reached by Portugal in these two decades? How did being an ESA member contributed to achieve them?

In the past two decades, the overwhelming majority of space activity in Portugal has been done through ESA and, therefore, all major technological and programmatic landmarks and developments are linked to this participation. We participated in several scientific missions, in the development of orbital vehicles, in the satellite construction chains, we have a permanent presence in the European Space Port and we provide Earth Observation services.

Recently, the Space area in Portugal was driven by the creation of a national strategy, a space agency (Portugal Space), a space law and the creation of a research center for the Atlantic (AIR Centre). This context allowed the launch of a tender for the establishment of a space port in Santa Maria, launched by the Regional Government of the Azores, and the implementation of strategic vectors for Portugal Space that include, for example, the creation of a constellation for the Atlantic.


3. How important is ESA for the evolution of the European space industry?

ESA plays a key role in managing a joint European industrial effort in the development of technology for accessing space, Earth observation, geolocation and scientific missions, many of which are focused on the exploration of other planets. For this purpose, ESA has its own approach:

  • bets on a clear industrial leadership including in innovation areas, thus fostering collaboration with research and development centers to bring science / technology to the space market;
  • it is governed by rules of georeturn: encouraging the involvement of all Member States, and above all the collaboration of various actors for the same objective. This policy promotes collaboration between companies and academia in different member countries, and also the knowledge and experience acquired is endogenized in different member countries;
  • applies the “one country one vote” rule, giving a voice to countries with less investment in the area of Space.

In summary, ESA not only guarantees Europeans independent access to Space, but is a key entity in promoting the sector’s competitiveness and balance of forces in Europe and its evolution. Policies such as “Best Practices” are fundamental for the future of the sector.

In addition, ESA is the instrument that allows Europe to have a space exploration program, also in cooperation with other countries and space agencies.


4. What are the the main goals for the Portuguese participation in ESA, for the next 20 years?

ESA will continue to have a very important role in the structuring and development of the Portuguese space industry over the next decade, namely:

– Consolidation of the work done so far and leverage in this and other sectors;

– Progression in the value chain (subsystems and beyond);

– Strengthening international partnerships in the perspective of supplying products, services and applications in an increasingly competitive way.

The National Strategy for the sector (PT Space Strategy 2020-2030), consolidated in 2019, states that ESA will have a key role in order for us to achieve, in the next 10 years, a 10-fold increase in investment in this sector, with a strong investment component proven, create about 1000 new highly qualified jobs, the development of the industrial sector due to the growth of the community in number and size, as well as attracting leading European companies to Portugal.

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