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EU to coordinate space-debris tracking to protect its satellites

The information gathered will be available to all

The European Commission on Thursday set out new plans to better coordinate the surveillance and tracking of space debris in order to protect satellites.

Currently, European satellite operators almost completely depend on United States space surveillance and tracking information. But the new proposals would bring together E.U. member states' existing capacities, such as ground-based telescopes, radars and surveillance and tracking (SST) data centers, to help the bloc become more self-sufficient.

Space debris consists of human-made objects in Earth's orbit that no longer have a useful purpose, such as pieces of launched spacecraft. It is estimated that up to 600,000 objects larger than 1 centimeter and at least 16,000 larger than 10 cm orbit Earth. An object larger than 1 cm hitting a satellite would damage or destroy sub-systems or instruments on board and a collision with an object larger than 10 cm would destroy the satellite, according to Commission figures. The number of objects larger than 1 cm is expected to reach around 1 million in 2020.

The only reliable protection against space debris colliding with satellites is to monitor and catalog the orbiting objects. Once an object's trajectory is tracked, satellite operators can be alerted to move their satellites.

The risk of collision leading to a complete or partial loss of a satellite is estimated at once every three years, but some European space agencies operating satellites report that on average they carry out one collision avoidance maneuver every month.

Economic losses for European satellite operators stemming from collisions or costly and risky maneuvers to avoid collisions are currently assessed at around ¬140 million (US$183 million) per year, the Commission said in a statement.

Under the new Commission proposal, the Europe-wide SST service would be available to all civilian (public or commercial) and military satellite operators as well as public authorities concerned with civil security.

Of the 950 active satellites orbiting Earth in January 2011, 19 percent were European, according to Booz & Company. As of then, 389 satellites were at Geostationary Earth Orbit, which is mainly used for satellite communication, with 63 in Medium Earth Orbit primarily for satellite navigation and 470 were in Low Earth Orbit, which is mostly used for Earth observation.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to [email protected].


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