Europe seeks greater autonomy in the management of space traffic

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European officials say they are making progress in achieving “strategic autonomy” in managing space traffic by building capacity and policy.

During a session at the 15th European Space Conference on January 25, representatives of the European Commission, the European Space Agency and industry said they had made progress in building European capabilities in space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic (STM), reducing reliance on the United States .

“There is a high political awareness of the need to achieve strategic autonomy for SSA and STM in Europe,” said Pascal Fauchet, head of the European Union Partnership for Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST). EUSST is a group of 15 EU member states that have agreed to pool national capabilities to improve efforts to track space objects and provide collision warnings. Since the beginning of the year, the company has launched its collision avoidance service worldwide.

The EUSST grew to 15 members in November from just seven. Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Latvia, the Netherlands and Sweden joined the seven previous members of the consortium — France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain.

“Partnership member states are investing more and more at the national level in SSA capabilities,” he said. “We’re seeing a proliferation of national investment plans investing heavily in SSA.”

Most of these national capabilities come from defense capabilities. Faucher said about 95% of SSA’s data in the EUSST system comes from military sensors.

However, the partnership is looking to acquire commercial data. “We consider commercial sensors to be strategic for us. They also contribute to strengthening our strategic autonomy, and what we would like to do is to rely more and more on this vibrant and active commercial industry and startup ecosystem in Europe.”

Last November, the EU held a “startup forum” dedicated to SSA, which was attended by more than 200 participants. This led to the creation of three working groups to help shape future commercial data requests.

One of the challenges for the EUSST and related efforts is funding. “We’re short on budget,” Fauchet said. “We need to be smart and make the most of the synergies between civil and defense.”

The Multiannual Financial Framework Agreement (MFF), which finances EU space activities from 2021 to 2027, provides €442 million to be allocated to SSA activities as well as Government Satellite Communications, or GOVSATCOM. This is a small fraction of the funding allocated to the EU’s two main space programmes, the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus Earth observation system.

“The budget in this MFF for STM/SSA is not the largest in the space programme,” said Christoph Kautz, Deputy Director for Innovation and Outreach at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defense Industry and Space. “Now that the importance of SSA and STM is growing, I hope that the next MFF will be positive for this policy area.”

Meanwhile, Kautz said the EU is moving forward on a new space law that will contain provisions related to STM and astronautics. This will include “rules of the road” to avoid collisions, as well as limit the generation of litter. He did not name the terms of the adoption of the law, but noted that the commission is just starting work on the impact assessment, which is necessary before considering the law.

Users welcome plans to improve European STM capabilities and regulations. “What I heard from the EUSST Commission and Consortium is music to my ears,” said Rolf Dansing, ESA’s Director of Operations. “We’ve always relied on data from the US, collision avoidance data. It’s nice to hear today that there really is progress.”

According to him, ESA can become a client of European companies providing SSA services. “Maybe it would be a good idea to use public funding to enable such companies to provide commercial services. ESA, I’m sure, would be happy and proud to be their main customer.”

However, one European company, STM, said that it is not enough to have government organizations as main customers. “There will be no ecosystem if we don’t have the participation of private companies,” said Chiara Manfletti, chief operating officer of NeuraSpace. “We need private companies to come out and create a commercial market that doesn’t exist today.” As an example, she cited her company’s partnership with Ienai Space and Endurosat, announced earlier this month, to demonstrate collision avoidance technologies.

She said she looked forward to the EUSST partnership’s efforts to improve SSA capabilities in Europe. “I want to stop relying on CDMs coming from the US,” she said, referring to the conjunction data message that warns of possible close approaches. “It’s what we use today to be able to serve our customers. I want to accept CDMs coming from EUSST.”

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