Europe Steps Up to Develop Space-Surveillance Network

GRAVES bistatic radar is Europe’s most sophisticated space-scanning asset, owned by the French Defense Ministry (Credits: Onera).

GRAVES bistatic radar is Europe’s most sophisticated space-scanning asset, owned by the French Defense Ministry (Credits: Onera).

On February 28, the European Commission (EC), the executive body of the European Union (EU), launched a new program to address the space debris problem.

“Some EU Member States have national systems, radars or telescopes that could be used for monitoring satellites and space debris,” reported the EC in a statement. However, “European satellite operators almost completely depend on United States space surveillance and tracking information.”  According to the EC, Europe needs to step up because “with increasing space activities, the U.S. will no longer be able to meet the information needs of an increasing number of spacecraft operators.”

The proposed European space situational awareness program would use ground-based radar and telescopes already operated by its 27 member countries.  The commission proposed to combine the space-surveillance network in a common effort to prevent satellite collisions.  Officials estimate that tracking objects in space to avoid eventual collisions could save European satellite operators €210 million per year within the next decade, including the cost of collision-avoidance maneuvers.

The commission’s proposal comes after a similar ESA effort encountered problems relating to a civil agency seeking to manage potentially military installations.  At the Ministerial Council Meeting in November 2012, ESA had  to abandon a large part of its own space situational awareness program (saving the part related to Near Earth Objects and Space Weather) because the lack of support by key members.

To overcome the opposition expressed at the Ministerial, the European government proposed to make it easier for space-sector companies to secure financing and to apply for EC financing.  Moreover, EC is willing to offer, as incentives, long term contracts to Earth observation product vendors. In order to silence the discomfort from the military, the commission stressed the fact that Europe’s space sector generates more than half of its annual revenue from commercial contracts.  Therefore, the commercial sector is the actual motor of Europe’s space technology and it must be preserved.

The EC highlighted that “space-based systems are essential for addressing societal challenges and the implementation of major policy objectives.”  Europe’s stepping up demonstrates their realization that space debris is not a problem only for satellite operators, but also, as indicated in the EC’s statement, that “any interruption of services which rely on space-based systems can have dramatic economic consequences.”


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