Since the early 1990s, ESOC has developed world-class expertise in research and warning services related to ‘space debris’ – the growing cloud of, today, some 23 000 tracked debris objects in orbit.
Debris comprise spent satellites, burnt-out rocket stages and fragments caused by collisions – millions of which are circling the Earth in a dense cloud – and are increasingly threatening active satellites and space infrastructure.
In April 2017, 350 international space experts, scientists, engineers and representatives of industry and politics met at ESOC for the 7th European Conference on Space Debris to discuss joint strategies for avoiding and mitigating debris. The gathering proved to be the largest and most significant of its kind worldwide to date.
“Darmstadt leads the way in space debris research,” stresses Juan Miró, who oversees the Space Debris Office.
The Office team, led by Holger Krag, one of the world’s most respected experts in the field, is active in all aspects of debris research, and provides collision warning services using data provided by the US surveillance network augmented by European sources for ESA and European spacecraft.
“Space debris threaten all working satellites, including Europe’s Sentinels and the Galileo navigation constellation, and any loss of space infrastructure would severely affect modern society,” said Krag, on the final day of the conference.
Detecting space hazards
ESOC hosts the Agency's Space Situational Awareness programme
In 2009, ESA launched the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme, which is currently funded with an investment of around EUR 100 million, according to ESOC’s head, Rolf Densing.
A team of ten at ESOC are working with colleagues across ESA and from European industry to develop systems, networks and technologies that can provide early warning of risks stemming from solar activity, referred to as ‘space weather’, and from asteroids that could impact Earth, and to expand Europe’s capability to detect and track space debris.
“Solar storms in space, increased solar activity and radiation can paralyse satellites and thus navigation, telecommunication or even electricity grids on Earth,” Densing points out.
The SSA team at ESOC are working on improving forecasts to mitigate effects on satellites and on ground infrastructure.
Overall, SSA aims to to enable Europe to autonomously detect, predict and assess the risk to life and property due to man-made space debris objects, reentries, in-orbit explosions, in-orbit collisions, disruption of missions and satellite-based service capabilities, potential impacts of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), and the effects of space weather phenomena on space- and ground-based infrastructure.
ESOC’s 50 years of expertise, for instance in space debris, will become increasingly important in the future as commercial telecommunication service providers increasingly move to deploy so-called ‘mega constellations’ comprising hundreds or even thousands of satellites into low Earth orbits.
The U.S. company, OneWeb, is planning to shoot 648 satellites for internet from space into orbit raising the risk of collisions and leading to even tougher competition.
Like all missions, such constellations must include provision for safe disposal when their missions end so that they do not contribute to the already unsustainably large population of debris objects.
“The future of space travel is very dynamic and space will play an increasingly important role in society,“ says Miró.
Core skills at ESOC
In one clear sign of the space future faced by ESOC, an increasing number of private operators and commercial firms are entering the domain of satellite operations.
This contrasts strongly with the past, where the operation of ESA and ESA-related missions were dominated by governments and national control centres, such as the German Space Operations Centre near Munich, which operates ESA’s Columbus lab on the International Space Station, or the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Control Centre that was located in Toulouse, in addition to ESOC itself.
While it may be true that the routine operation of commercial telecommunication satellites does not require large teams of highly trained and experienced personnel, or that flying a cubesat can be done by university students, “not everyone can land on a comet or a Saturnian moon,” notes Densing.
“That’s where ESOC’s core skills lie.”
The risk of losing scientific and exploration missions worth hundreds of millions of Euro is great and meeting this challenge must be balanced by the cost of ensuring a safe journey to orbit and the reliable receipt of data from destinations that range across the solar system.
Read more on '50 years of ESA's Mission Control'