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Thursday, April 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Europe Addresses Space Junk

(CN) - The European Commission wants to compete harder against the United States in the space industry, and plans to set up a tracking system to protect satellites from space junk.

Europe, a leader in the commercial satellite business, faces challenges from emerging space powers such as India and China, the European Commission said in a statement Thursday.

Regulators said one problem is that space programs in the rest of the world are highly subsidized, and focused on research and development.

"In an international context, the funding of European R&D is relatively small. For example, approximately 25 percent of the U.S. civil space budget is spent on R&D. Furthermore, expressed per capita, NASA's civil budget alone is approximately four times bigger than the combined European civil space budgets. The European institutional market is relatively small - in 2009 the U.S. budget was almost 10 times higher than the European budget - and very fragmented, due to the diversity of public stakeholders and their different and not always coordinated industrial policies," the commission said.

As a result, "the space market does not follow the classical rules of competition," the regulators said. They called for space legislation at the member state level and an expansion of space activities, particularly by enlarging the existing commercial business.

The commission also called on lawmakers to study the potential for suborbital flights, given the hole in that market following NASA's retirement of its Space Shuttle fleet in 2011.

"EU investment in space-based infrastructures will open up new opportunities for businesses in Europe," said European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship. "But we need to do more. Without a vibrant space industry in Europe, we will not be able to reap the benefits of our investments. We must provide the conditions to allow our industry to compete at global level, and to create a real internal market for innovative space-based services. In parallel, we need make sure that we can protect these investments in infrastructure from damage."

That will require a coordinated effort by European nations to track space debris, which causes $168 million (140 million euros) in annual losses to EU satellite operators alone. Regulators estimate the figure will rise to $252 million a year (210 million euros) in the next decade.

The commission said in a memo that 600,000 objects larger than four-tenths of an inch are orbiting the earth, and at least 16,000 of them are larger than 4 inches. In a collision, small debris can knock out satellite subsystems and damage instruments, and the larger chunks can destroy an orbital, sending pieces careening back toward Earth.

"Without being aware, European citizens rely on space technologies when they use their mobile phones, make financial transactions, take an airplane, watch the weather forecast, or look for the nearest restaurant in their cars," the commission said. "Space-based systems are essential for addressing societal challenges and the implementation of major policy objectives in areas such as environment, climate change, agriculture, transport, development, or security. Any interruption of services which rely on space-based systems can have dramatic economic consequences. The most serious threat to the functioning of satellites and space infrastructures today is the risk of collision with other satellites or space debris."

While some European countries have their own space surveillance and tracking (SST) systems, satellite operators in the EU largely rely on information from U.S. SST reports, which often arrives too late to save the satellites. So regulators say it's time to develop a European SST.

"The European SST services will help securing the launch of satellites, increase the safety of satellite operations by reducing the collision risks, and help to better predict uncontrolled re-entries of inactive satellites or space debris," the commission said. "The services will be available to all civilian (public or commercial) and military satellite operators as well as public authorities concerned with civil security. Member states will retain full control and responsibility over their assets and capacities."

Under the plan, the EU will reimburse member states for the costs of setting up and operating the European SST services. The financial support can also be used to upgrade and maintain existing SSTs.

The commission said it funds other projects aimed at predicting space junk orbits and removing debris, but those programs are still in the early stages of development. EU satellite operators report they carry out at least one collision avoidance maneuver per satellite, costing fuel and shortening the life of the satellite.

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