Space traffic is a pressing issue. With over 20.000 satellites expected to be launched in the next decade, various orbits are becoming increasingly congested. The situation is especially pronounced in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
The abundance of satellites is not only responsible for "an unprecedented space traffic jam". It is also the cause of a large amount of space debris, or ‘’junk’’, which is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS), over 1 million debris items larger than 1cm are currently orbiting the Earth.
When we talk about space debris, we often refer to large objects, such as dead satellites, that have either failed or not been moved to their designated ‘’graveyard orbit’’. But space debris can also be any manmade object in space, ranging from small cables and screws that have fallen off a rocket to actual rocket components. While some debris (in LEO) may re-enter the atmosphere after some years and burn up, large part will remain in orbit for hundreds, or even thousands of years.
Space debris can go on to cause further damage, potentially taking out functioning satellites. What’s more, the collision of space debris with satellites, operational or not, creates even more debris, thus further aggravating the problem.
In summer 2016, Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was hit by a millimetre-size particle in orbit causing only minor damage to one of the solar panels, fortunately not affecting the satellite’s performance.
The damages caused by larger pieces of debris to any navigation, communications and Earth Observation satellites could be irreversible and the repercussions will certainly affect us, end users down on Earth.
Before and after debris impacted the Sentinel-1A solar panel. Credits: European Space Agency (ESA)
Towards a unified approach in Space Traffic Management
As both space debris and congestion jeopardise the operation and security of the EU’s and Member States’ space assets, such as Galileo, Copernicus and EGNOS, the European Commission recently proposed an EU integrated approach to Space Traffic Management (EU STM). This holistic approach will secure long-term viability of space activities by ensuring that space remains a sustainable, safe and secure environment encompassing the means and the rules to access, conduct activities in, and return from outer space safely, sustainably and securely.
"It is of a geostrategic question to be able to monitor autonomously space and enhance our collective situational awareness of threats to European or national Space assets," remarked Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton during the European Space Conference in 2023.
To ensure the adequate protection of its satellite infrastructure, the European Union has been relying on EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST) Partnership, which is the main operational pillar of STM.
The EU SST Partnership operates a network of ground-based sensors capable of surveying and tracking space objects, together with processing capabilities aiming to provide data, information and services on space objects that orbit the Earth.
Today, EU SST provides collision avoidance services to more than 390 satellites distributed in Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit and Geostationary Orbit using Member States’ civil and military assets that remain under the control of its Member States.
EUSPA to support the EU Space Traffic Management
As part of its expanded role in the Union Space Programme, and its expertise in service provision and security issues management, EUSPA will take responsibility for the Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) service provision Front Desk as of July 1st, 2023.
"The EU SST Front Desk is a key interface for the delivery of SST information and services, including activities related to user coordination, service performance," says EUSPA Executive Director, Rodrigo da Costa. "Additionally, the SST Front Desk will be engaging with users and promoting the use of the SST services to further support the future of STM in the EU," he concludes.
The visit of the EU SST partnership Member States to EUSPA took place in this context, gathering all the representatives for a presentation of EUSPA and an exchange of views on future work.
"We are very pleased to visit EUSPA in Prague and we look forward to working with our future EU SST service provision front desk to support our growing user community" declared Pascal Faucher, Chairman, European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking Partnership, Defense and security, CNES. The responsibility is currently being transferred from the European Satellite Centre (SatCen), who currently operates the service, to EUSPA’s Galileo Security Monitoring Centre (GSMC) in Madrid.
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