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Since the 1960s, Belgium has been involved in space policy. The concept and the implementation of the relevant policy were entrusted to the national administration for scientific research, currently BELSPO, based on the following principles:
- scientific exploration;
- free access to outer space;
- sustainable application of aerospace technology in the interest of society and humanity.
Belgian space policy and law
In line with the above principles, BELSPO pursues a space policy based on four anchor points:
- scientific research;
- social utility;
- industrial development;
- economic interest.
Belgian space policy is conducted in an international context, through bilateral cooperation and mainly at the multilateral level, i.e., the international space agencies. The Belgian space policy is regularly updated, for example, following the emergence of new space companies (New Space).
International law, e.g., the five treaties on space law, and regulations lay down the main principles and general guidelines for aerospace and the use of outer space. The concrete implementation and application are based on national legislation. This means that legal certainty is ensured for any initiative or act relating to aerospace, in other words any legal entity can be held liable.
At the centre of Belgian space law is the Act of 17 September 2005, revised by the Act of 1 December 2013, which has a twofold objective: to guarantee the legal and material security of operational space activities carried out under Belgian jurisdiction and to create an appropriate legal framework for the space sector in Belgium. Specifically, based on this legislation, operators can establish themselves on Belgian territory and carry out their activities (e.g., space navigation, manipulation of satellite images) under Belgian jurisdiction. Both these activities require an authorisation from the Belgian Minister for Science Policy. Another concrete application of this legislation is the national register of spacecraft. According to international law, each launch state (e.g., Belgium) must have such a register. National legislation also defines the operator’s liability for any damage caused by the spacecraft launched.
International cooperation: economies of scale based on programmes
Belgium has always linked aerospace to active involvement in international organisations. Space technologies and their applications (upstream and downstream) are a comparative advantage for countries like Belgium if they are developed and implemented within a multilateral cooperation programme. There is a wide range of international organisations and partnerships in which Belgium is involved regarding space, but the three organisations of key importance for Belgian space are briefly presented below.
The European Space Agency (ESA) was founded in 1975 following the merger of the European Launcher Development Organisation and the European Space Research Organisation. ESA's basic objective is to provide and promote space research and space technology and its applications. In other words, ESA’s mission is to guarantee its European member states access to outer space and, through mutual cooperation, to safeguard the scientific and industrial interests of these countries in the space sector.
ESA is made up of 22 member states, including Belgium. ESA employs 2,200 people and is based in Paris. The Agency has various sites across Europe:
- the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, headed by Frank De Winne, second Belgian astronaut in space after Dirk Frimout;
- the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), ESA's main research centre in the Netherlands.
- the European Space Security and Education Centre (ESEC) at Redu.
In 2021, ESA's budget amounted to 6.49 billion EUR. Belgium is ESA's fifth most important donor. The budget is divided between compulsory contributions and optional programmes. At the triennial ministerial meeting of the member states, the broad strategic lines of ESA's policy are set and the budgets for its functioning and programmes are determined.
The European Commission's DEFIS Directorate General established in Brussels, monitors the implementation of the European Space Programme, based on three objectives:
- to maximise the benefits of space for the European economy and society (transport, land use, security and emergency aid, environment, health, etcetera);
- to ensure that the European space sector maintains its position as an innovative and competitive actor on the global market (market access, research and development);
- enhancing access to outer space in a secure context. Space security is an issue that increasingly requires the attention and commitment of the EU, its member states, international partners and stakeholders. The presence of more and more space objects in orbit will eventually threaten access to outer space. Concepts such as Space Traffic Management are therefore becoming increasingly popular in the space sector.
The growing cooperation between ESA and the EU allows both organisations to focus more on their niche: technological applications for ESA and data transfer and digital services for the EU space programme. Three strategic satellite navigation projects support this ambition:
- Copernicus (observation);
- Galileo (GPS);
- EGNOS (road transport security).
The EU space programme is largely funded through Horizon2020.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is established in Vienna (Austria). It promotes international cooperation and the peaceful use of outer space. UNOOSA monitors the implementation of UN space law obligations, e.g., keeping the register of space objects. Thirdly, UNOOSA organises training sessions and seminars in the framework of the United Nations Space Applications Programme.
In addition, UNOOSA fulfils its function as secretariat of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). Founded in 1959, COPUOS was instrumental in the creation of the five treaties on space law (to which Belgium is a party) and in the conceptualisation of the five principles regarding outer space. In other words, COPUOS is of vital importance in the development of space law and aerospace. Basic principles and topical issues are the subject of debate in the numerous subaltern bodies of which the Legal Subcommittee and the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee are the most important ones. Belgium actively participates in the ongoing debates on long-term sustainable access to outer space and the exploitation of outer space (space resources).