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Avoiding damage from space debris

All Rights Reserved © Maciej Frolow/Getty

Space debris poses a risk to our space infrastructure and to the space services we rely on in our daily lives. European satellite operators lose roughly €140 million per year due to collisions, and that total will rise to about €210 million within the next decade. Therefore, the European Commission has introduced measures to help EU Member States combine their space surveillance and tracking (SST) technology. The proposed European SST service will allow Member States to locate and monitor satellites and dangerous debris, alert satellite operators of collision risks and notify public administrations of so-called uncontrolled re-entries.

In February 2013, the European Commission introduced a proposal that will help unite Member States’ space surveillance and tracking (SST) technology. The programme was inspired by Europe’s increasing reliance on satellite-based systems and services – for communications, security, weather reports, air travel and more – as well as the increasing risk to these systems posed by space debris.

It is estimated that up to 600 000 objects larger than 1 cm – and at least 16 000 larger than 10 cm – orbit the earth. An object larger than 1 cm hitting a satellite will damage or destroy sub-systems or instruments on board, and a collision with an object larger than 10 cm will destroy the satellite. On the ground, the knock-on effects of damaged satellites – from decreased productivity to crippled communication – further highlight the far-reaching impact of space debris.

EU joint action

With that in mind, the EC hopes to establish a support programme that will help EU Member States combine their capacities, including ground-based radars and telescopes, and offer European SST services. Key elements of protecting satellites include being able to monitor and catalogue their positions; track and calculate debris trajectory; and measure collision risk. These same tools can also be used to protect ground-based infrastructures and citizens’ security, which is threatened when space debris or decommissioned satellites fall out of orbit and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

Making Europe more independent

Currently, European satellite operators depend to a large extent on SST information provided by American institutions and technology. The United States has an advanced capacity for SST because of observation initiatives that began in the 1950s. Since then, however, many European nations have developed and improved upon existing technologies.

Developing Europe’s own capacity to monitor satellites and collision risks will not only allow European space programmes to handle ever-increasing space activities and information, but will also put responsibility for these systems firmly in Europe’s own hands. European SST will help to overcome the challenges associated with restricted access to US SST data, as well as broaden the overall scope of knowledge to be able to work in tandem with the US, rather than rely on it.

Europe has never before been able to fully exploit its exhaustive technical and scientific know-how in the field of SST. The European Commission is poised to make SST a European endeavour which will incorporate the knowledge, technologies and experience the Member States have to offer.

Why Member States should have their eyes on the skies:

  • To avoid collisions between satellites and with space debris
  • To ensure the safe launch of satellites by avoiding collisions with space debris
  • To forecast the uncontrolled re-entry of space debris
  • To protect private and public investments in satellite technology
  • To promote the smooth operation of the everyday tasks that rely on satellites


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