BREMEN, Germany — European space industry figures have expressed alarm at Russia’s destructive antisatellite test which has created thousands of pieces of orbital debris.
“Our models show an increase in probability of a collision in low Earth orbit of five percent,” Philippe Baptiste, head of the French space agency CNES, said Nov. 16 of the ASAT test.
Baptiste was speaking at the opening plenary session at the Space Tech Expo Europe 2021 event in Bremen, Germany, with the information having been delivered to Baptiste minutes earlier by colleagues in Toulouse.
A day earlier the U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed that satellite Cosmos-1408 had been destroyed by an ASAT, with U.S. Space Command stating the same day that the test had so far generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller objects.
Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner in charge of European Union space policy, tweeted later Tuesday to “join the strongest condemnations expressed against the test conducted by Russia on Monday.”
“The launch poses a major risk to our astronauts currently on the International Space Station and has triggered emergency procedures to protect them,” Breton wrote.
While sustainability of space activities was already a prominent issue for many, the test created a cloud of its own over proceedings in Bremen and questions as to what can be done.
Baptiste stated his aim to move swiftly on from the topic, but both other speakers and questions from the audience reflected an acute concern about the Russian test.
Ian Annett, deputy CEO for Programme Delivery at the UK Space Agency talked of standing “collectively with those other responsible space nations to call out bad behaviour like we’ve seen in the last 48 hours or so.”
Participants in a later panel, entitled Establishing the Building Blocks of a Unified Space Governance for a Safer, More Sustainable Industry, expressed dismay at the development.
“It’s a huge concern for all of our industry,” said Karl-Heinz Servos, head of industry directorate at ArianeGroup. “What can we do? I think we need to sit as nations around a table and come to agreements as to what we do with such debris.
“There is not so much time here. We are launching a lot of spacecraft and the possibility of accidents, or accidents in general terms, is becoming higher and higher. We need to do something, we cannot wait longer.”
That view, including the need for swift action, was reflected by other speakers. “It is alarming,” said Pascale Ehrenfreund, president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). “We have to have, even if it is not binding, very fast, strong regulation to deal with these topics. If the governments allow these activities, then commercial space actors have no guidelines.”
Aleksandra Bukała, director of strategy and international cooperation at the Polish Space Agency agreed with the latter point. “It’s not only governments, but there is now more and more NewSpace and they also need a framework.
“For these types of issues international cooperation is critical, also involving actors like Russia,” Bukała said, adding that the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is a great body to develop this.
“We are all concerned because we are all dependent on space, more and more, and includes Russia, China and any other country. It is in our best interest, all of us, the global community, to develop regulations that we all agree to allow the sustainable use of outer space.
The difficulties of forging such multilateral agreements were not discussed, but ways forward were noted. Silke Hüttemann, head of Department for UN Affairs at the German Aerospace Center, described the event as a “huge concern”.
“Germany very much supported the [United Nations] resolution on long-term responsible behavior which was adopted in December 2020 and is exactly what should be the basis for future international dialogue and preventing something like this happening in the future.