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Many aspects of our society - from telecommunications to television, weather forecasting to global financial systems – rely on space systems or space-based technologies.

However, the sheer scale of space projects makes it impossible for most countries to attempt them alone. So European countries have pooled their technological and financial resources to run space policy through the European Commission – in cooperation with the European Space Agency (an intergovernmental agency run by 20 European countries).

European space policy has 3 mains strands:

  • the Copernicus Earth observation system and the Galileo/EGNOS satellite navigation systems 
  • space exploration
  • helping European companies get involved – and thrive – in the space industry.

Copernicus – monitoring the environment

Copernicus is a set of complex systems that gather data about the earth through satellites and sensors on the ground, in the sky and at sea. This gives policy-makers, businesses and the public at large up-to-date and reliable information about how the planet and its climate are changing.

Artist’s image of the Sentinel-2 satellite above the Earth

This Copernicus satellite – known as Sentinel-2, will provide high-resolution images of vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas.

This information is used for many purposes, including:

  • urban planning
  • protecting nature
  • agriculture and forestry
  • health
  • managing emergencies
  • transport
  • tourism.

Copernicus is coordinated and managed by the European Commission. Satellite infrastructure is run by the European Space Agency, and the sensors are developed by the European Environment Agency and individual EU countries.

Galileo - global positioning service

Galileo is Europe's programme for a global satellite navigation system (GNSS). Unlike its American and Russian counterparts, Galileo is, and will remain, under civil control.

The Earth surrounded by orbiting satellites © ESA–J. Huart

Europe’s satellite navigation system – Galileo – provides global positioning data for non-military purposes.

Once Galileo is fully operational, 30 satellites (including 6 active spares) will be providing highly accurate global positioning data for civilian use across Europe. Its state-of-the-art technologies and built-in interoperability with other satnav systems will permit much more precise positioning than anything that is currently available.

In 2013, the Galileo programme reached an important milestone when for the first time ever, a position fix was obtained using Galileo-only signals. As more satellites are deployed, Galileo will begin delivering initial services (currently expected in early 2015).

The potential applications of Galileo are many and varied, including:

  • traffic & transport management
  • rescue operations
  • farming
  • civil protection
  • time stamping and time synchronisation.

It is expected that the EU’s investments in Galileo will be repaid in terms of new market opportunities and jobs in the satellite signal receivers and satellite-based applications sectors.

The partners in the Galileo programme are:

  • European Commission – manages and fully funds the phase leading to full operational capability
  • European Space Agency - design, development, procurement and validation. ESA part-funded the definition, development and in-orbit validation phases of the Galileo programme
  • European GNSS Agency (GSA) – in charge of operations once the system is ready

EGNOS satellite augmentation system

The European Geostationary Navigation Overlay System is a system that augments the quality of existing satellite navigation systems (like the American GPS), improving their accuracy from about 10 meters to about 2 meters. It also sends alerts in case of system failures.

In 2014, a replacement satellite was launched from the European Space Port of Kourou, ensuring the continuity of the EGNOS service for the next 12 years, and demonstrating Europe’s commitment to high-quality satellite-based navigation systems.

Space exploration

Space exploration is a driver of innovation, technological development and scientific knowledge. But since such programmes are beyond the individual capabilities of most countries, international cooperation is indispensable.

This is why the European Commission is actively involved – on behalf of all EU countries – in international discussions about cooperating on space exploration, especially with strategic partners such as the USA, Russia and China.


EU-funded space research projects aim to make European industry and science more competitive. Some of the funding comes from the EU's flagship research programme Horizon 2020. This support is critical to the ongoing development of the space sector, in particular:

  • encouraging researchers in both public and private sectors to intensify their effort & investment in the space sector
  • helping sustain a competitive space industry (including manufacturers, service providers and operators)
  • providing appropriate services & infrastructure, needed to develop and exploit new technologies.



Published in November 2014

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series



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