Europe flies unprotected

Today, Europe has no autonomous capability to survey objects that pose hazards to its assets – the same assets supporting our agriculture, banking, entertainment, civil authorities, emergency services and defence forces. Research and development within European member states has provided a basic technical framework, but to date the deployment of this technology has not allowed us to create a true and independent picture of the actual situation in space in real time.

Current analysis within Europe relies on data generously provided by the USA. Although this data gives a much clearer picture of the traffic in space, it has certain flaws that preclude European satellite operators from ensuring that their spacecraft are protected. These flaws are:

  • Only non-US military objects (both satellites and debris)
  • No indicators on the precision or validity of the data
  • Absence of any independent assessment of the accuracy of the data
  • Large gaps within the reach of the data

Without a solution to these problems, the ability of Europe to protect its space-based infrastructure is severely impaired.

With luck, Europe avoids collisions

Recently, the number of conjunctions - orbit intersections with a debris object - predicted for European satellites has been growing.

In the last quarter of 2009, seven 'high-risk' conjunctions were predicted for ESA's Envisat and two for ERS-2 alone.

In the case of Envisat, one potential conjunction was detected by the US Space Surveillance Network and communicated to ESA with just two days' warning time. The conjunction, with a predicted miss distance of just 96m, obligated ESA to conduct an avoidance manoeuvre that used 200g of irreplaceable thruster fuel, limiting the life of this extremely valuable satellite.

In the past 24 months, multiple collision avoidance manoeuvres have been conducted by ESA's ATV, Envisat and ERS-2 as well as by numerous other European satellite operators. In all cases, the predicted conjunction between the European satellite or spacecraft was based on data provided by the USA and had to be approved by US authorities.

Last update: 31 May 2010

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