Europe can help prevent disaster in outer space – POLITICO

POLITICO Contributing Editor Paul Taylor writes the “Europe At Large” column. Its report “Out of Space; European Security in Space” was published by Friends of Europe.

BRUSSELS — A disaster in space is imminent.

The accumulation of debris threatens to trigger a cascade of collisions, which would disable satellites and render orbits, vital to sustaining our globalized high-tech economy and maintaining our security, unusable.

Although we may not think of it, we rely on space for daily communications, a multitude of transactions, television, and weather and climate data, as well as for intelligence, navigation, and synchronization – yet we are little aware of the growing danger in this area. called low earth orbit. No international panel has met, no global action to ‘save space’ has been promised at high-level intergovernmental conferences, and no Greta Thunberg has led youth protests against the destruction of the cosmos. .

And as access to space is threatened by a toxic combination of commercialization and militarization, the European Union can help prevent this impending catastrophe. What it needs to do, however, is invest more in secure communications, take a bigger role in space traffic management, and lead diplomatic efforts for arms control in space.

The trash currently rushing in, hundreds of miles above our heads, includes bits of old rockets, defunct satellites that didn’t fall back and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as expected, bolts and rivets that fell from spacecraft and debris caused by electromagnetic storms as well as meteorites. It also contains thousands of shrapnel deliberately caused by anti-satellite missile tests, especially those by China and Russia in 2007 and 2021, respectively – conducted to demonstrate an ability to knock out enemy satellites in wartime.

Moreover, the commercial, scientific and military exploitation of space by governments and private operators is growing exponentially. European Space Agency Director General Josef Aschbacher says as many satellites have been launched in 2020 and 2021 alone as in the previous 64 years since the first Sputnik probe lifted off from the Soviet Union in 1957 – firing the starting shot on the original space race.

At the time, however, it was a manageable competition between two nuclear-armed superpowers.

Today, some 58 countries are active in space and commercial operators are overtaking state actors as the rush for power and profit has overtaken our fragile international legal framework, originally designed to preserve the skies as as common good of humanity. The noble objectives enshrined in the 1967 outer space treatydeclaring that no one could appropriate the celestial bodies and seeking to promote peaceful international cooperation, were assaulted by commercial and geopolitical realities.

The main laws that apply in space today are those of the jungle or the Wild West – “first come, first served” and “finder keeper”.

What the world needs is a space traffic policeman, a global body to allocate parking spaces and issue mining permits, with fines for littering, a binding obligation to leave its own garbage and space sweepers.

Currently, however, in the race to occupy space real estate and mine celestial minerals, there are no international regulations on who has the right to throw what, park where, dig up what, or how to dispose of obsolete spacecraft. The only authorities responsible for issuing launch authorizations are national, and they are not required to coordinate with other countries, or do more than simply notify the geopolitically crippled UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.

While this stalemate persists, just one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has fielded roughly half of all active satellites in space – more than 2,200 out of an estimated 4,500. Additionally, the company has US government licenses to launch another 12,000 and plans to roll out up to 30,000 by 2030, expanding its top service Starlink throughput around the world.

Director General of the European Space Agency Josef Aschbacher | André Pain/AFP via Getty Images

American, British and Chinese competitors are hot on the billionaire’s heels with their own mega constellation projects, threatening a free-for-all in increasingly crowded orbits between 450 and 2,000 kilometers above Earth.

But what about the EU?

Although the EU has some world-class space assets – including the Galileo navigation and positioning system and the Copernicus Earth observation network – the bloc has fallen behind the United States and China in key areas of the space race, such as launchers, satellite constellations and space situational awareness, which will be the key to security and prosperity in the 21st century.

Frankly speaking, Europeans often don’t know if a junk or other space object is about to crash into their precious satellites until the US military tells them. Without this free American public service, which the administration of former President Donald Trump has decided to place under the Department of Commerce, the EU would be largely blind in space.

Additionally, EU assets are mostly unprotected from potential predators who have developed a range of so-called counterspace capabilities, including laser dazzling, jamming and ground impersonation. , cyberattacks on downlinks and prowling space vehicles that can track and spy on satellites.

France publicly denounced such a hostile approach by a Russian probe to a Franco-Italian military satellite in 2018.

Finally, while Europe’s backwardness in space is partly explained by the lack of public investment compared to its main competitors, it is also linked to a long-standing reluctance to consider space as a domain strategic. Despite pockets of excellence, the EU’s ‘new space’ sector faces the same obstacles as any other European innovator when it comes to patenting inventions, developing start-ups and securing access to funding. It also struggles with a slow and bureaucratic public tendering system skewed in favor of the big incumbents.

It is time for Europe to become aware of space. Yes, it is a playground for billionaire tourists on vertical ego journeys and a canvas for fantastic scientific exploration and discovery. But it’s also a big, unregulated market, as well as a theater of strategic rivalry and even possible war.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only recently highlighted the military utility of space.

Private companies, mostly American, provided high-quality, near real-time satellite images of Russian forces assembling and moving into Ukraine, negating Moscow’s strategic surprise. Russia also launched a cyberattack on the first day, destroying thousands of terminals connecting Ukrainian military and civilian users across Europe to satellites of US internet service provider Viacom. The hack then backfired, when Musk quickly intervened, giving Ukrainian terminals connecting to his Starlink satellites instead.

But while France was able to help Ukraine with satellite intelligence, the Europeans were otherwise mostly absent from the spatial dimension of the conflict.

To get back in the game, Europe should collectively invest in space enablers, such as a constellation of satellites with secure connectivity. It also needs reusable micro-launchers, smarter and more maneuverable satellites, and space defense tools that provide situational awareness, tracking, space radars, surveillance cameras, and clusters of mini-satellites to protect key assets.

To be taken seriously, we must combine a push for arms control, beginning with a moratorium on anti-satellite weapon testing, with the development of our own non-kinetic deterrent weapons.

Europe could in fact be a force for fair regulation, sustainable traffic management and arms control in space – it only has to look out for its own defence.

Mary I. Bruner