A threefold activity
The space sector has helped enhance the global economy, provide social benefits, support environmental protection activities and ensure strategic sovereignty. Therefore, many sectors and activities rely on the protection of space assets against threats such as man-made space objects, space weather events and near‑Earth objects. To mitigate these threats, three solutions have been instigated through sub-programmes. Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) is the monitoring, cataloguing and analysis of changes in space objects. Space Weather (SWE) activities encompass the study and analysis of the activities of the Sun and its effects on solar wind, as well as Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and neutral atmosphere. Near Earth Objects (NEO) activities have the purpose of observing, cataloguing and anticipating changes in natural objects in the solar system that might cross paths with Earth.
An international network of capabilities
SSA architecture involves a set of nationally owned sensors, such as radars, telescopes and laser stations as well as space-based assets in the case of the US. These are used to detect and track space objects, solar events and NEOs, and to provide key data to SSA data centres, where it is analysed by specialists. The data is channelled into providing essential services, such as conjunction assessment warnings, re‑entry warnings and fragmentation analysis in the case of SST, which is utilised mainly by satellite operators and other civil protection and industry users. Even though SSA assets are owned and operated at national level, international cooperation reinforces the delivery of reliable and timely SSA services. As such, the EU and its Member States are developing a network of SST assets aiming to enhance European SST capabilities and contribute at a global level to the protection of space assets. The network is completed by strong cooperation with the United States, which provides a substantial volume of SST data.
Increased need for observation capabilities
Even though best practices aiming at limiting the creation of additional space debris are encouraged among the global space community, the debris population is expected to increase due to an upsurge of space activities in the coming years. Especially considering the potential deployment of mega-constellations primarily instigated by commercial players who benefit from cheaper and simplified access to space solutions. This trend testifies the fact that traditional barriers to entry, which are specific to the space sector, are being diminished, opening the sector to new entrants who are not necessarily aware or sensitive to debris release mitigation best practices.
Strategic importance of SSA activities
The purpose of SST sensors is to observe and track all types of space objects orbiting around Earth. As such, SST capabilities play a dual role by tracking passive threats such as debris, and by observing operated space objects that can act in an aggressive or unfriendly manner. Furthermore, in order to limit the spread of debris, the regulation measures must be reinforced and their effective application must be controlled and verified. In that sense, SST sensors enable better knowledge of the nature and origin of space debris, and can be used as a tool to support the enforcement of mitigation measures.
Emergence of a commercial market
It appears that several private entities have developed their own network of capabilities to provide SST services. However, the security and defense aspects of space surveillance is a persistent concern, preventing private entities from entirely leading SST activities without the support, partnership and cooperation of public players. A sound development of future SST capabilities addressing space traffic management issues must be based on a relevant ecosystem and governance structure, ensuring service precision and efficiency, international cooperation and a thorough data policy.