Accelerate the use of space

Protection of space assets

Timely and accurate warnings of threats are needed.

What’s the problem?

There are a great many objects in orbit around Earth, mostly comprising functioning and dead satellites as well as fragments of past break-ups, explosions and collisions. Some 36,000 objects larger than a tennis ball are orbiting Earth – and only 13% of these are actively controlled. The rest is space junk that threatens all the satellites on which our economies and society depend.
On top of this growing hazard, space weather caused by unpredictable solar activity can damage and even destroy satellites and can cause power blackouts and cut communication networks on the ground.
Developing an air traffic control system for space would protect civil infrastructure on Earth.

Why act now?

Tens of thousands of new satellites, many in constellations, are being launched globally, which starkly increases the chances of collisions. ESA already receives hundreds of warnings each week for its fleet of spacecraft. The current manual methods to assess collision risk and manoeuvre active satellites out of the way will soon be overwhelmed.
Because societies are becoming ever more dependent on satellites – for mobile internet, personal navigation and autonomous driving – Europe’s vulnerability to disruptions is growing.
Furthermore, even a moderate solar event could cost Europe more than €13 billion in damage and lost services. Such an event happened in 2012, but it just missed Earth. Next time we might not be so lucky.

What is needed?

Europe must develop operational, real-time systems to enable the detection, identification and avoidance of natural and human-made space hazards. The need to remove dead satellites from orbit means developing a new European commercial capacity to provide innovative in-orbit services, like deorbiting, repairing and refuelling active satellites, creating a circular economy in space.

Why do this in Europe?

Building ‘space traffic control’ systems and commercial satellite-servicing capacities are not costs, rather they are investments. Such systems will foster new, made-in-Europe businesses that will secure European technological and commercial leadership as well as autonomy in safely accessing and using space.
Currently Europe is forced to rely on debris orbit data provided by other nations. This puts Europe’s digital sovereignty at risk and, in future, such data will have to be purchased from foreign commercial companies.
A new space weather system will help protect European digital infrastructure, networks and industry from major impacts like blackouts, reinforcing their economic value and resilience. And Europe will continue to act as a role model for the multi-national collaboration that is increasingly needed in today’s world.

What’s the next step?

ESA has the expertise and know-how to design, shape and kick-start the systems needed – the agency has already done so for world-class efforts like Europe’s Galileo navigation fleet and the Copernicus Earth observation system, which is the world’s most successful. With investment from European governments, institutions and commercial entities, a dedicated service provider can bring the new space safety systems into full operation, benefitting all citizens and making spaceflight more sustainable for everyone.

What are the wider benefits?

Building these crucial systems will provide the actionable information and timely warnings that Europe needs to prevent damage and disruption to its economically vital space and ground infrastructure. This will ensure a safer, more stable European society and the prosperity of its citizens, while establishing commercial leadership, protecting freedom of action for Europe and safeguarding the global competitiveness of the European space industry.