Safeguarding space operations with STM

30 November 2023
During EU Space Week, participants learned how EU Space Traffic Management (STM) is working to mitigate the threat of space debris colliding with satellites.
During EU Space Week, participants learned how EU Space Traffic Management (STM) is working to mitigate the threat of space debris colliding with satellites.

Haven’t heard of Space Traffic Management? Well, it’s time you get familiar. After all, it has a direct impact on your everyday life. 

“From communication to navigation, observation to aviation, all of these depend on the data and services coming from satellites in space,” said João Alves, SST Team Leader at EUSPA, who moderated a panel discussion on EU Space Traffic Management during EU Space Week. “As a result, keeping these systems safe and operational is paramount.”     

But doing so is becoming increasingly more challenging. That’s because as the number of satellites being put into space continues to grow, so too does the amount of debris floating around space. 

In fact, there are now more than 1 million pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth. If one of these tiny pieces of old launchers or satellites happens to collide with a satellite, not only could it damage the satellite itself, end users could lose access to the services those satellites provide. 

Helping answer this threat is Space Traffic Management (STM). 

Space Surveillance and Tracking as the backbone of Space Traffic Management

Space Traffic Management encompasses the means and the rules to access, conduct activities in and return from outer space safely, sustainably and securely. “With STM, the EU is at the forefront of shaping a new era of space governance, safeguarding EU interests in full respect of the respective competencies of the EU and its Member States,” said Rodolphe Muñoz, a Legal Officer at the European Commission.

However, for STM to work, it needs to be able to continuously observe space traffic. This is why the EU has made Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) the operational backbone of its approach to STM. 

“Between the European Commission, the SST partnership of  15 Member States and EUSPA, all of whom are working together, I can assure you that we are in very good hands when it comes to delivering EU SST’s services,” said Pascal Faucher, Chair of the EU SST Partnership and Head of Defence and Security at CNES

A key component of the EU Space Programme, EU SST safeguards Europe’s space assets – including Galileo, EGNOS, Copernicus and GOVSATCOM satellites – along with those of its Member States and other space operators. To do so, it uses a network of ground-based sensors capable of surveying and tracking artificial space objects, together with processing capabilities aiming to provide data, information and services on space objects orbiting the Earth. 

“One of the main pillars of EU STM in general and EU SST in particular is technology – radars, sensors, lasers, telescopes, etc.,” remarked Alberto Águeda, Director of Space Surveillance and Traffic Management at GMV. “This requires having the best European companies working on the technology that gives us the ability to build the best STM system.” 

Here, as mentioned by Rodolphe Munoz and Pascal Faucher, the EU Industry and Start-ups Forum on STM (EISF) was established with the purpose of bringing together EU stakeholders and industry to jointly develop R&D priorities. “This fosters the industrial ecosystem, strengthens operational STM capabilities and enhances EU autonomy,” said Águeda.

EUSPA responsible for SST Front Desk operations 

EUSPA is responsible for the SST Front Desk. The Front Desk is the main interface for delivering SST information and services between the SST Partnership and the user community, including activities related to user coordination, service performance, engagement and communication.

Those services, which currently include collision avoidance, re-entry analysis and fragmentation analysis, are already being leveraged by such satellite operators as EUMETSAT, the European operational satellite agency for monitoring weather, climate and the environment from space. “We regularly receive messages from EU SST that make us aware of potential risks and allow our team to analyse the problem and, when necessary, take mitigation action,” explained EUMETSAT Flight Dynamics Manager Pierluigi Righetti.

In addition to its SST Front Desk responsibilities, EUSPA also contributes to the system’s security monitoring, including establishing the security requirements needed to shape the SST network in support of the European Commission and the EU SST Partnership. 

You can learn more about EUSPA’s role here

    Did you know?

    Did you know that the increase in space activity has the potential to impact air travel and safety? 

    That’s because the launches and re-entries of space assets often go through controlled airspace, causing flight delays and creating a potential safety risk.

    “Although very congested, Europe is the safest region for aviation in the world – and we would like this to continue,” said Nathalie Le Cam, Project Manager Higher Airspace Operations at the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

    According to Le Cam, the key to ensuring the safety of both space and air travel is to create a level of harmonisation between space and air traffic management – something that EU SST could help do.   

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Updated: Nov 30, 2023