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For Israel and Ukraine, ESA Membership a Long Shot

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said neither he nor ESA has any objection to non-European Union members joining ESA. Credit: ESA photo

PARIS — If the European Commission has issues with Norway and Switzerland as members of the European Space Agency (ESA), what would it think about Israel and Ukraine becoming members?

Both nations have made repeated inquiries about joining the 20-nation ESA, but neither is currently on the path to membership pending detailed discussions with ESA’s current member states, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 24.

Briefing reporters here, Dordain said neither he nor ESA has any objection to non-European Union members joining ESA. Canada is already an associate ESA member, and Norway and Switzerland have been in the agency for many years.

But how far ESA can expand outside the 27-nation European Union (EU) remains a question now that the agency and the EU’s executive commission have closer relations and the commission uses ESA as a technical manager for many of its programs.

The European Commission in November already raised questions about whether ESA-European Commission relations might suffer because of Norway and Switzerland, especially if ESA is asked to perform military space work for the European Commission.

In addition to these issues, Israel and Ukraine are both special cases.

Despite its small size, Israel is already a global space player with a well-developed space-technology base that competes on world markets. It is also a launching state, albeit one that, given Israel’s location, limits its ability to offer launch services to anyone but the Israeli government.

Israel has developed its own line of optical and radar reconnaissance satellites, and likely would be a first-order competitor for ESA contracts if the Israeli government gave its space agency a substantial budget to spend at ESA.

Israel is already a cooperating state with the European Commission and is eligible to take part in the commission’s seven-year research and technology budget.

Ukraine has not yet applied formally to join ESA, Dordain said, but has left little doubt that it would do so if ESA governments signaled that this would be welcome.

Ukrainian engineers and scientists produced a lot of space technology for the Soviet Union, and since the Soviet collapse in 1991 it has sought to leverage this work for its own line of Cyclone rockets and its share of the work on the Zenit heavy-lift launch vehicle commercialized by Sea Launch AG of Switzerland.

A Cyclone variant has been designed to operate from Brazil’s Alcantara launch base, which would in principle offer competition to Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport next door, on the northeast coast of South America.

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