EU’s commitment to independent space research should not exclude cooperation

February 26, 2014 10:00 am

Asteroid impact prevention and space debris problem will be the main areas of space research in 2014. The efforts undertaken by the international community to address these issues are currently not integrated into the joint activity, which significantly reduces the efficiency of the work.


According to available information, only two countries, Russia and the United States, currently have the ability to, and already do, track the whole near-Earth space environment. They study its activity in terms of the spread of man-made pollution, relying on their national space control systems.

At the same time, according to the press service of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense, in 2014 Russia will update its own space control system in order to improve processing of information on the state of the environment in near-Earth space.

“In the coming years, new radar complexes, optical-electronic devices and latest radio control tools will enter service of Russia’s main center of space surveillance, which will greatly extend national space control system potential for ensuring safety of space activities of the country,” the Ministry website states.

Meanwhile, some other countries, in particular European Union member states, are moving towards developing their own national space control systems.

For example, Stephan Mayer, who is in charge of Space Situational Awareness at Austrian Research Promotion Agency, Aeronautics and Space Agency, noted that for Europe, it is of strategic importance to develop and operate its own system.

The EU's Project Galileo, which hopes to rival US and Russian technology

The EU’s Project Galileo, which hopes to rival US and Russian technology

In his opinion, this increased interest and heightened importance is particularly due to the development of the European space project Galileo. which according to its creators, will provide Europeans independence from the American GPS and Russian GLONASS.

“Of course, Europe should cooperate with US and Russia to identify synergies and to complement each other. Cooperation can also include exchange of data based on respective agreements,” the expert added.

In turn, Joost Carpay, ESA coordinator and PB-EO delegate at the Netherlands Space Office, stressed the urgency of the problem of space debris and pointed to the growing need for development of measures to mitigate debris.

“Europe understandably wants to contribute to the international efforts for a monitoring system because it recognizes its importance. Since, as we say in Dutch, more eyes see more than one, these systems need to cooperate. Therefore, the European system will be developed as a cooperative system. Initially it will aim at joining national assets and generating and making available data to relevant partners,” he said in an interview with new agency PenzaNews.

From his point of view, the spacefaring nations will cooperate on this issue.

“The recent meteor impact in Siberia has made clear that there is a threat from objects from outer space. Surveillance systems will help quantify the severity of that threat. I expect also that debris removal systems will be developed,” Joost Carpay added.

Margaret Campbell-Brown, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the Western Meteor Physics Group, shared the opinion about the importance of international cooperation.

“I think that more surveillance is needed, and all the groups involved should coordinate to some degree to minimize duplication, facilitate follow-up observations, and maximize the time between discovery and potential impacts,” the astronomer said.

A secret meteor site in Siberia

Meteor site in Siberia

Speaking of the prospects of creating a pan-European space control system, Fernand Alby, responsible for space debris and space surveillance activities at CNES, noted that France already has a national space surveillance system with a limited capacity compared to the US and Russian systems.

“Such a system is important for a country wishing to be independent. A too large dependence on a foreign system could be critical if the delivery of data was suppressed. Moreover, it is of prime importance to have its own capacity of interpretation of the situation in space. For instance a surveillance system can make mistakes when correlating space objects: due to the Launching State responsibility this may represent an important problem in case of collision or reentry,” the expert said.

In his opinion, cooperation with other networks is positive because it would give access to additional sensors and data.

“This point is important in the frame of the long term sustainability of space activity: collisions between large objects shall be avoided as much as possible to reduce the production of new debris. The cooperation between networks could be very helpful to reach this objective,” Fernand Alby explained.

In turn, Jean-Claude Worms, Head of Science Support Office at European Science Foundation, noted that the importance of the matter lies in the possibility for Europe to secure access to an SSA system that provides global coverage and coordinated approach with international partners.

“Whether it should be a European system or whether Europe should use a US or Russian system is a political, programmatic and possibly industrial/economic decision that should probably be assessed and decided in other forums than the scientific ones, as the rationale for such a decision is not a scientific one,” the expert said.

“Certainly, any European standalone-approach, if so decided, should be implemented through discussions with our partners,” Jean-Claude Worms emphasized.

Russia and US remain world leaders in space technology

Russia and US remain world leaders in space technology

Meanwhile, Patrick Chatard-Moulin from the Space Policy and Coordination Unit of the European Commission, noted that the purpose of Commission proposal for a decision establishing a Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) support program is to assist the networking of existing national SST assets in the member states, with a view to establishing SST services at European level.

“These SST services are in particular alerts for satellite operators to prevent collision in space and a risk assessment of uncontrolled reentries of space objects into the earth atmosphere. To our knowledge, only the US are delivering such SST services worldwide and it is important that space operators and civil protection authorities do not depend on one single data source in the future,” the European Commission representative said.

At the same time, according to him, cooperation in this area is key because a collision in a given orbit would have a catastrophic impact for all the spacecraft in the surrounding orbits and create a “chain reaction.”

“However cooperation should not prevent the European from developing national capabilities. On the contrary, cooperation is all the more efficient when the different partners have a similar level of knowledge and systems developments,” Patrick Chatard-Moulin stressed.

In turn, Alan Harris, German Aerospace Center Senior Scientist and NEOShield Project Coordinator, pointed to the increase in the number of events dedicated to the space industry that are held in Europe.

“One of these meetings was held in Darmstadt in Germany, where Space Missions Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG) was established under the auspices of the United Nations,” the analyst said.

According to him, the main task of this group is to create an international strategy against dangerous celestial bodies and coordinate activities of different countries to make the whole process more effective.

“This is supposed to be a very international group. In particular, at the meeting Russia was represented by delegates from Roskosmos, INASAN, Emercom and Central Engineering Research Institute TsNIIMash. The US was represented by delegates from NASA and the US State Department. Four delegates from the European Space Agency represented the European Union,” the professor said.

European Space Agency Conference, 2009

European Space Agency Conference, 2009

It is planned that SMPAG will work in close collaboration with the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) which, according to the expert, was created in an attempt to coordinate the observational work that is going on around the world to search for Near-Earth objects.

“It is certainly a political issue because the impact could cause a major catastrophe on the Earth, and any country in the world could be affected. The problem is that only a few countries can really do anything about it – only the countries with active space programs, such as the United States, Russia, and Europe. So I am quite optimistic that now we established these two groups: IAWN and SMPAG under the auspices of the United Nations. I think it is a big step forward and we can look more optimistically into the future now,” Alan Harris added.

Lucia Marta, European space policy analyst and Associated Researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, noted that European space faring nations, the ESA and more recently the European Union as such have developed their own space systems in key functions like civil and military telecommunications, Earth Observation and meteorology as well as navigation and positioning.

“National space agencies and the EU have accomplished consistent research and development, financial and technological efforts to ensure that strategic and vital interests for nations and citizens are served through independent capabilities,” she explained.

According to her, some initiatives are also emerging to mitigate the risks associated with space debris.


“The SSA program started to be financed at ESA level, European countries own and operate national assets, and more recently the EU, notably at technique level and political-diplomatic level is joining the arena. These efforts are important not only to ensure autonomously the security and safety of European space activities – security, defense, scientific, political and commercial interests are at stake – but also to keep the technological gap with the other space faring nations like the USA and Russia under a certain control. In a way, space technological development and capabilities can be considered as a foreign policy tool,” the expert said.

She also noted that some European countries are indeed cooperating bilaterally with the US in terms of exchange of data, while others simply depend on the US for accessing data.

“Such cooperation is going to be continued, both at bilateral and European level. In fact, the EU initiative for a European SST service recalls the importance of the cooperation with the US, but it is nevertheless oriented towards a more developed indigenous capability, made of European existing assets forming a network. Indeed, cooperation among Europeans and with third parties allows an improved service at a lower development, procurement and operating cost. On the other hand, cooperation, especially when it takes part between countries with very different technological level, may lead to dependence. From the strategic and defense perspective, the final aim of Europe should be non-dependence on a single partner, while seeking in the long term complete independence,” Lucia Marta concluded.

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