One small step for Malta into the space industry

The Malta Council for Science and Technology signed a collaboration agreement with the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the French Space Agency. President Dr Jean-Yves Le Gall, who is also chairman of the council of the European Space Agency, explains the contribution Malta could make in the space industry

You’re here in Malta to sign an agreement on behalf of the French Space Agency with the Malta Council for Science and Technology. What led to this?

We had excellent discussions a few months ago when Malta was heading the European Presidency and we decided to enter into an agreement with Malta on space affairs because there is – in Malta – a wish to develop a space policy and there are a lot of people who are very skilled. And we are sure we can get a win-win situation and that is why we signed this agreement.

What could Malta possibly offer to an agency like yours, which has the second–largest budget in the industry?

In Malta we find several opportunities today. The first is the high-tech industry with many startups and studies. What exactly is developing in the space industry? The space sector is composed of historic players like CNES but also of new commerce. That new commerce is built on new technologies and that is mainly what we can find in Malta. In addition, there is a fantastic geographic location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and with regard to all that is related to the observation of the sea, this is a perfect location. This is why when we discussed things with our Maltese counterpart we developed a lot of interest to sign this agreement.

Who made the first contact?

In fact, we had an event in Brussels in January, and there was the Maltese Minister responsible for research and we started a discussion before deciding to proceed with an agreement. Some people from my team met members of the Maltese team and we then decided to sign an agreement. Now that the agreement is signed, we have to implement it.

When we talk of the space industry, many people still think of the USA, Russia and NASA. Is that still true today?

Jean-Yves Le Gall
Jean-Yves Le Gall

No, we have to be very clear. Today, Europe has the second broadest space policy in the world and the second-largest space programme in the world. Europe is very efficient when compared to the US because, although our programme is not very different to the US programme, we have a budget which is quite mature. As you know, Malta is an observer at the European Space Agency and in Europe we can be very proud of what we are doing. It is very promising for the future because we decided on a space policy at European Union level and today space in Europe is a reality; a successful reality.

So Europe is no longer playing catch-up to the superpowers in space?

I think that today we have now moved from competition to cooperation. The biggest cooperation project in the civil field is the International Space Station, with €100 billion of investment in the past 25 years and with a lot of achievements and preparations for the future. So we are in a very promising field.

When we talk of space, many people – especially the younger generation – think of space travel. But there is so much more, isn’t there?

Yes, of course. Space is everywhere in our lives. Even in your car, for example, because if you have GPS, this is a result of many satellites that are in orbit around the Earth. In the future, we will have Galileo – GPS is a US system, while Galileo will be European – and it will be much more accurate than GPS. With regard to telecommunications systems, for an island nation like Malta, most of the telecommunications use satellites. The same happens when it come to observation, to see what is going on, and so on. Nowadays Space is much more present in our lives and what is now necessary is to develop applications from space. This is exactly what we are looking for in the field of the agreement we signed with Malta.

Realistically speaking, how important is Malta’s geographical position?

We are here in the middle of the Mediterranean eco-system and for anything that is related to the study of the Mediterranean, this is a key location. Furthermore, in Malta there are many start-up companies that could be involved in the space industry in the future. And that is why we value this agreement with Malta so much.

So even if we do not have a space programme, and have only just launched a national space policy, would you encourage Maltese teens to pursue careers in the industry?

Yes, because I think today, everywhere in the world, we see new space programmes and these new programmes, will not merely be doing what has already been done in the past 50 years by the big space programmes, but it will be a different story. However, in this different story, the new commerce must speak with the old players. And this is exactly what we are going to do. With Malta as an observer at the ESA and France as the major contributor to the ESA, we have a lot of interest to work together.

When you signed the agreement earlier, you said you couldn’t dream of a better partner than Malta for the French Space Agency. Why?

Because of the specifics of Malta. Frankly speaking, when we started discussions with Malta, I did not know much about Malta’s space programme. But when I discovered more about it, I was very impressed, both by what has already been achieved but also by the dynamism and the ambition for the future. And so I am sure that the agreement we signed is very promising for the future.

Where do you see the space industry in 10 years’ time? And in 25 years’ time?

It’s probably difficult to predict because we live in a world that is constantly changing but it is clear that the global trend is applications. More space, everywhere, and in my opinion this is the global trend. Since we cannot imagine all that satellites can bring to people, to major issues, to connect people, to observe the earth, this is exactly the field we will be working in.

Will we ever experience affordable space travel in our lifetime?

For the moment, space travel is difficult. But in the case of applications, that is easy.