In April 2011, the European Commission (EC) released a communication entitled "Towards a space strategy for the European Union that benefits its citizens" outlining the crucial role of space for European economies and societies.
The document provided a powerful endorsement for the goals of ESA's Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Preparatory Programme, which was authorised the ESA Member states at the Ministerial Council in 2008 and formally started in January 2009.
SSA: detecting space environment hazards
ESA's SSA preparatory programme aims to support European autonomy through the provision of timely and accurate information and services regarding the space environment, and particularly regarding hazards to critical satellites in orbit and infrastructure on the ground.
In general, these hazards stem from:
- Possible collisions between functioning satellites and orbital debris
- Harmful effects of space weather on satellites and ground infrastructure
- Potential strikes on Earth by natural objects such as asteroids and comets
Yet today, Europe lacks the full compliment of operational telescopes, scanning radar and data processing capabilities that would warn of space hazards.
Strong agreement at European levels
"There is strong agreement at national and European levels that we need services based on European assets that help us to protect our satellites and ground infrastructure against threats from orbital debris, space weather or possible impacts," says ESA's Nicolas Bobrinsky, Head of the SSA Programme Office.
In 2011, SSA activities are accelerating with the opening of a space surveillance data analysis capability located at ESAC, the European Space Astronomy Centre, Spain. It will serve as the test-bed for enhanced debris data analysis and for issuing test warnings to satellite operators.
Similar test facilities are also being established for space weather and NEOs.
SSA: helping European autonomy and creating high-tech jobs
In 2012, the initial phase of the SSA preparatory programme will reach fruition, producing a detailed technical roadmap for the future fully operational SSA system to be decided at the ESA Ministerial Council scheduled for the end of that year.
"The plan will show how existing European research capabilities, such as the scanning radar at the Fraunhofer Institute near Bonn or ESA's own Optical Ground Station on the Spanish island of Tenerife, can be efficiently integrated into the system. It will also specify the new sensors that must be built in order to secure Europe's autonomy," says Bobrinsky.
He adds that SSA is a major opportunity for European industry that will provide skilled jobs and targeted investment. "SSA will ultimately help secure in Europe a satisfactory level of autonomy in a strategic space domain and enable us to better cooperate with and assist all space-faring nations."
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