The European Union presents a plan to strengthen space traffic management capabilities

WASHINGTON – The European Union is deploying a new space traffic management initiative to bolster its capabilities on the ground while working with the United States and the United Nations.

The European Commission published a “Joint Communication” on February 15 outlining the EU’s approach to Space Traffic Management (STM), calling for increased EU capabilities to track objects and help develop international regulations for responsible and safe operations in space.

“We intend to propose a European approach to the management of space traffic, covering operational and regulatory needs, but also allowing us to pursue international cooperation”, declared Thierry Breton, European Commissioner in charge of the internal market, during a conference of press on February 15. mainly dedicated to a secure connectivity constellation proposal and defense programs.

Part of this proposal in the Joint Communication is to improve the capabilities of the European Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) programme. This program provides conjunction advisories to European satellite operators, but relies primarily on the US Catalog of Space Objects, supplemented with some European data.

The EU proposes to develop its own space situational awareness resources, including establishing tracking capabilities outside continental Europe to provide better coverage. The proposal also calls for the development of automated collision avoidance technologies and “quantum technology” to reduce the risk of collisions. The document sets a target of mid-2023 to “develop an architecture analysis” for EU SST system upgrades and 2025 to begin deployment of new follow-on assets.

European officials had previously recommended developing more space-tracking capabilities. “We are very grateful to receive collision warnings from our American partners, but it would be much better if we did not have to rely on others,” said Rolf Densing, director of operations of the European Space Agency, during of a round table. of the European Space Conference in January.

“Today we still rely on American data,” acknowledged Pascal Faucher, president of the EU SST consortium, during the same round table. He said European assets were only able to track about 300 of more than 1,500 fragments from the Russian anti-satellite weapons demonstration in November. “It shows us that we need to invest more in our capabilities.”

The joint communication does not specify the financing of the SST upgrades, but indicates that 75% of the money would go to European companies. He suggests that the EU’s Cassini initiative to support emerging space companies could play a role in this effort.

“The commercial sector can do more,” Chiara Manfletti, chief operating officer of Neuraspace, told the conference panel. This Portuguese company applies artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to space situational awareness data to provide more accurate warnings of potential collisions. “It’s easy to say the public sector needs to put more money into it, but there’s also an ecosystem that needs to be created here.”

Faucher said he was interested in working more closely with European companies on STM capabilities, such as buying commercial data and developing new services. “There are a number of new areas where we could rely on commercial operators,” he said.

Improving Europe’s space tracking capabilities is only part of the proposition. The joint communication also calls for the development of European “guidelines and standards” for VTS, but remains vague on what these guidelines and standards would encompass. This would lead to an EU legislative proposal for STM rules by the end of 2024.

These rules could potentially apply to satellite operators outside of Europe. The proposed rules “should also ensure that EU operators do not suffer from distortion of competition by operators established outside the EU benefiting from lower standards”, the document states, perhaps “by imposing equal to EU operators and any satellite operator intending to provide services within the EU.

Another aspect of the proposal aims to develop multinational agreements on STM, mainly through the UN.

The EU, however, is also seeking bilateral cooperation on the STM, such as “privileged” talks with the US. “The United States is the most advanced player in STM, having invested billions” of dollars in space situational awareness capabilities, the document says. “While the EU must first develop its own STM approach, it must do so in close cooperation with the United States.”

A former US official offered a mixed assessment of EU STM plans. “On the one hand, it’s really just another horn bell that this is such a big issue,” Kevin O’Connell, former director of the Office of Space Commerce, said during a briefing. a session of the FAA Commercial Space Transportation. Conference on February 17.

He saw his support for commercial STM capabilities as a strength. “On the other hand, there is also a quest to be the world leader in standards and also a quest to give ultimate ownership to the UN,” he said. “It’s not something we would be okay with.”

His skepticism of the UN, he said, is based on slow progress which has been further slowed by Russia, which forced the UN to delay the first meeting of a new group open-ended working on behavioral standards in the space from mid-February to at least early May.

“I think we need to look to the private sector” to develop these rules of the road in space, he said, comparing it to the development of maritime rules. “The private sector led the development of practical rules of the road which were eventually codified. »

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