Rendering of space debris and defunct launcher stages in the geostationary ring. Credit: European Space Agency

WASHINGTON — The European Union is rolling out a new space traffic management initiative to build up its abilities in the field while working with both the United States and the United Nations.

The European Commission released Feb. 15 a “joint communication” outlining the E.U.’s approach to space traffic management (STM), calling for increasing E.U. abilities to track objects as well as help develop international regulations for responsible, safe operations in space.

“We intend to propose a European approach to the management of space traffic, covering operational and regulatory needs, but also to enable us to continue international cooperation,” said Thierry Breton, E.U. commissioner for the internal market, at a Feb. 15 press conference primarily devoted to a proposed secure connectivity constellation and defense programs.

Part of that proposal in the joint communication involves improving the capabilities of the E.U. Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) program. That program provides conjunction notices to European satellite operators but relies primarily on the U.S. catalog of space objects, augmented with some European data.

The E.U. is proposing to build up its own space situational awareness resources, including establishing tracking assets outside of continental Europe to provide better coverage. The proposal also calls on developing automated collision-avoidance technologies and “quantum technology” to reduce the risk of collisions. The document sets a goal of mid-2023 to “elaborate an architecture analysis” for the upgrades to the E.U. SST system and 2025 to start deployment of new tracking assets.

European officials had previously recommended developing more space tracking capabilities. “We are very grateful that we get collision warnings from our U.S. partners, but it would be a lot nicer if we would not have to rely on others,” said Rolf Densing, director of operations for the European Space Agency, during a panel session of the European Space Conference in January.

“We still rely today on U.S. data,” acknowledged Pascal Faucher, chairman of the E.U. SST consortium, during the same panel. He said European assets were able to track only about 300 of the more than 1,500 fragments from the November Russian antisatellite weapon demonstration. “It shows us that we need to invest more in our capabilities.”

The joint communication does not specify funding for the SST upgrades but does state that 75% of the money would go to European companies. It suggests that the E.U.’s Cassini initiative for supporting emerging space companies could play a role in the effort.

“There is more that the commercial sector can do,” said Chiara Manfletti, chief operating officer of Neuraspace, on the conference panel. That Portuguese company applies artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to space situational awareness data to provide more accurate notices of potential collisions. “It’s easy to say that the public sector has to put more money into it, but there’s an ecosystem that needs to be created around here as well.”

Faucher said he was interested in working more closely with European companies on STM capabilities, such as buying commercial data and developing new services. “There are a number of new domains where we could rely on commercial operators,” he said.

Improving European space tracking capabilities is only one part of the proposal. The joint communication also calls for development of European “guidelines and standards” for STM, but was vague about what those guidelines and standards would encompass. That would lead to an E.U. legislative proposal for STM rules by the end of 2024.

Those rules could potentially apply to satellite operators outside of Europe. The proposed rules “should also guarantee that the EU operators do not suffer from distortion of competition by operators established outside the EU benefiting from less stringent standards,” the document states, perhaps “by imposing equal treatment to EU operators and to any satellite operator intending to provide services within the EU.”

Another aspect of the proposal seeks to develop multinational agreements on STM, primarily through the U.N. That includes having the E.U. “engage with the UN to identify or help create specific bodies for STM with a view to implementing concrete STM solutions at global level.”

The E.U., though, also seeks bilateral cooperation on STM, such as “privileged” discussions with the United States. “The US is the most advanced actor upon STM, having invested billions” of dollars on space situational awareness capabilities, the document states. “While the EU first needs to develop its own STM approach, it must do so in close cooperation with the US.”

One former U.S. official offered a mixed assessment of the E.U.’s STM plans. “On the one hand, it’s very much another klaxon bell that points to the fact that this is such an important problem,” said Kevin O’Connell, former director of the Office of Space Commerce, during a session of the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 17.

He saw as a strength its support for commercial STM capabilities. “On the other hand, there’s also a quest to be the world leader in standards and also a quest to put the ultimate ownership of this at the U.N.,” he said. “It’s not something we would agree with.”

His skepticism about the U.N., he said, is based on the slow pace of progress that has been further slowed down by Russia, who forced the U.N. to delay the first meeting of a new open-ended working group on norms of behavior in space from mid-February to at least early May.

“I think we have to look to the private sector” for developing those rules of the road in space, he said, comparing it to the development of maritime rules. “The private sector led with the development of practical rules of the road that ultimately became codified.”

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...