ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme was authorised at the November 2008 Ministerial Council and formally launched on 1 January 2009. The mandate was extended at the 2012 and 2016 Ministerial Councils, and the programme is funded through to 2020.
The objective of the SSA programme is to support Europe's independent utilisation of, and access to, space through the provision of timely and accurate information and data regarding the space environment, and particularly regarding hazards to infrastructure in orbit and on the ground.
In general, these hazards stem from possible collisions between objects in orbit, harmful space weather and potential strikes by natural objects, such as asteroids, that cross Earth’s orbit.
SSA means detecting hazards
SSA aims, ultimately, 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.
SSA means that Europe will know what goes on in space by acquiring the independent capability to watch for objects and natural phenomena that could harm our infrastructure.
Why Europe needs SSA
ESA’s 1 m-diameter telescope in Tenerife discovered its fifth NEO (2013 CZ133) in February 2013. Another NEO discovered with the support of ESA’s SSA programme, the 30 m-diameter 2012 DA14, passed Earth at 27 700 km on 15 February 2013, the same day, by chance, that a 17 m-diameter NEO exploded in the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia.
For Europe, space is a crucial region.
Space-based systems have become indispensable to many services critical to Europe’s economies and government functions, including those related to security. This dependency will only increase in the future.
Any shutdown or loss of services from these systems would seriously affect an enormous range of commercial and civil activities, including commercial land, air and sea travel, maritime navigation, telecommunications, information technology and networks, broadcasting, climate monitoring and weather forecasting, to name but a few.
In the event of a disruption to space-based services or supporting infrastructure on the ground, citizens’ safety could be significantly affected and the delivery of emergency services by regional, national and European authorities could be considerably impaired.
To date, Europe’s access to information on what is happening in space has been largely dependent on non-European sources. In recent years, for example, data to trigger alerts on potential collisions between European satellites and debris objects have only come through the good will of other spacefaring nations.
For this and other reasons, Europe needs an autonomous SSA capability.
Furthermore, developing existing capabilities will strengthen the competitive edge of European industry.
For example, in the area of space weather, Europe already has a wealth of expertise and assets providing high-quality scientific data and, in some cases, space weather ‘products’ – processed, usable data – to a wide variety of customers. However, these capabilities are largely fragmented across national and institutional boundaries.
A new, coordinated approach to developing space-weather applications tailored to European user needs together with the supporting research and infrastructure would strongly increase our capabilities in this area.
Developing SSA infrastructure
The programme is active in three main areas:
Survey and tracking of objects in Earth orbit
comprising active and inactive satellites, discarded launch stages and fragmentation debris that orbit Earth
Monitoring space weather
comprising particles and radiation coming from the Sun that can affect communications, navigation systems and satellites in space and networks and infrastructure on ground
Watching for NEOs
comprising natural objects that can potentially impact Earth and cause damage, and assessing their impact risk and potential mitigation measures
To undertake these activities, the programme is federating existing assets and capabilities from ESA and from European and international partners into a set of unified SSA capabilities.
Achievements to date
These are being extended by newly developed infrastructure, including databases, software tools and applications and optical survey telescopes and radars, and may include dedicated satellite missions in the future. Here are a few of SSA’s notable achievements to date:
- Funding for an initial study to support the design and development of a future space weather satellite to keep watch on the Sun and provide early warning was authorised at the 2016 Ministerial Council.
- Two new test radars have already been contracted, built and installed by industrial partners, one located in Spain and one in France, to test, validate and develop future radar search and detection techniques, a capability not currently available in Europe under civil control.
- In 2013, ESA’s existing Proba-2 solar observatory satellite was shifted to the responsibility of the SSA programme, becoming in effect the first ‘SSA mission’.
- New SSA coordination centres for space weather (at Space Pole, Brussels) and for NEOs (at ESA/ESRIN) have been inaugurated, and these are providing precursor services on a test and evaluation basis.
- An SSA Centre has been established at ESA/ESOC, and will begin providing a trial real-time response capability.
- Test-bed optical telescopes have been installed at ESA’s ground station site at Cebreros, Spain, and at La Silla, Chile (in progress). These are being used to develop and test new observation software and techniques.
- An initial ‘flyeye’ telescope – featuring state-of-the-art, made-in-Europe optical technology – has been procured and will be deployed in 2018, to provide the kernel of a worldwide, daily asteroid survey capability.
Much more will be done during the current period of the programme to 2020.
A crucial aspect of SSA activities is cooperation.
SSA is managed directly by ESA on behalf of the Agency’s Member States, who fund the programme. SSA also includes cooperation with European national and regional authorities, including ministries of defence, national space agencies and national research establishments, particularly those with existing ground- and space-based sensors.
SSA activities are also extending Europe's long-standing cooperation with organisations in the USA, including NASA, NOAA and the US Defense Department, and with bodies such as the UN and other international agencies.
Strong benefits for European industry
During the initial 2009–12 phase of the SSA programme, over 25 contracts were issued to industry for SSA-related work with a total value in excess of €30 million.
Between 2013-2016, this procurement activity continued, with a value to European industry of additional €35 million. Until 2020, SSA is budgeted at €95 million, the vast majority of which will be spent procuring technology and expertise from European industry, supporting high-tech jobs and value-added services.
Overall, during 2009-2016, over 100 contracts were issued to industry for SSA-related work with a total value in excess of €65 million.
This represents a significant return on investment for Member States and highlights the abilities of European industry to play an active role in developing essential tracking abilities to help secure safe use of space.
Supporting the global space community
SSA is enabling Europe to play a fundamental role in support of the peaceful uses of outer space by providing the international community with independent options for verifying compliance with treaties and codes of conduct.
SSA also supports international technical, regulatory and political processes by furnishing knowledge based on independent data and information. Importantly, SSA directly supports the EU Lisbon Objectives, to foster the development of new applications, new services, new jobs and new markets.
The SSA programme is:
- Helping strengthen the reliability, availability and security of Europe’s space-based applications
- Reaffirming Europe’s autonomous access to space, gaining full knowledge of events in the economically and strategically important orbits near Earth
- Enhancing the peaceful uses of outer space in cooperation with international partners
- Ensuring that European industry benefits from contracts and new, world-class competitive capabilities gained through the development of SSA infrastructure and capabilities