EUSST debris
European officials say they are building up their SSA and STM capabilities to ensure “strategic autonomy” for the continent. Credit: EUSST

WASHINGTON — European officials say they’re making progress to achieve “strategic autonomy” in space traffic management by building up both capabilities and policy.

During a session at the 15th European Space Conference Jan. 25, representatives from the European Commission, European Space Agency and industry said they were making progress in building up European abilities in space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM), reducing reliance on the United States.

“There’s a high political awareness on the need to achieve strategic autonomy on SSA and STM in Europe,” said Pascal Faucher, chair of the European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) partnership. EUSST is a group of 15 E.U. member states that have agreed to combine national capabilities to improve efforts to track space objects and provide warnings of potential collisions. It opened its collision avoidance service worldwide as of the beginning of the year.

The EUSST grew to 15 members in November from just seven. The previous seven members of the consortium — France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain — were joined by Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Latvia, the Netherlands and Sweden.

“Member states in the partnership are investing more and more, at the national level, on SSA capabilities,” he said. “We see a proliferation of national investment plans that invest a lot on SSA.”

Most of those national capabilities come from defense capabilities. Faucher said that about 95% of the SSA data in the EUSST system comes from military sensors.

The partnership, though, is looking to buy commercial data. “We consider that commercial sensors are strategic for us. They also contribute to reinforce our strategic autonomy, and what we would like to do is rely more and more on this vibrant and energized commercial industry and startup ecosystem in Europe.”

The E.U. held a “startup forum” devoted to SSA last November, with more than 200 participants. That led to three working groups that will help craft future calls for commercial data.

One challenge for EUSST and related efforts is funding. “We are lacking budget,” Faucher said. “We need to be smart and exploit synergies at maximum between civil and defense.”

The multiannual financial framework (MFF) agreement that funds E.U. space activities from 2021 to 2027 provides 442 million euros shared by SSA activities as well as government satellite communications, or GOVSATCOM. That is a small fraction of the funding allocated to two flagship E.U. space programs, the Galileo satellite navigation constellation and Copernicus Earth observation system.

“The budget in this MFF for STM/SSA is not the biggest one of the space program,” said Christoph Kautz, deputy director for innovation and outreach for the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space. “Now, with the increasing importance of SSA and STM, I’m hopeful that the next MFF will be positive for this policy domain.”

In the meantime, Kautz said the E.U. was moving forward on a new space law that will feature provisions related to STM and space sustainability. That will include “rules of the road” regarding collision avoidance as well as limiting the creation of debris. He didn’t give a timeline for enacting the law, but noted that the commission was just starting work on an impact assessment that is required before the law can be considered.

Plans for improved European STM capabilities and regulations are welcomes by users. “What I heard from the commission and the EUSST consortium is music to my ears,” said Rolf Densing, ESA director of operations. “We have always been relying on data we get from the U.S., collision avoidance data. It’s good to hear today that there’s actually progress being made.”

He said ESA could become a customer for European companies providing SSA services. “It might be a good idea to use public funding to enable such companies to provide commercial services. ESA, I’m sure, would be happy and proud to be an anchor customer to them.”

One European STM company, though, said that having government organizations as anchor customers is not enough. “There will be no ecosystem if we do not have private companies involved,” said Chiara Manfletti, chief operating officer of NeuraSpace. “We need private companies to go out and create the commercial market that today does not exist.” She cited as an example the partnership of her company with Ienai Space and Endurosat announced earlier in the month to demonstrate collision avoidance technologies.

She said she was looking forward to efforts by the EUSST partnership to improve SSA capabilities in Europe. “I want to stop relying on CDMs coming from the U.S.,” she said, referring to conjunction data messages that warn of potential close approaches. “Today this is what we ingest to be able to provide services to our customers. I want to ingest CDMs coming from EUSST.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...