by Valentin Eder
“Predicting, detecting, tracking and cataloguing debris objects and asteroids is the cornerstone.” D. Scuka
Spaceflight is undergoing revolutionary changes, and the net effect is that the sustainability of our orbit is at risk. The growing quantity of space debris located in economically and scientifically crucial orbits poses a serious hazard to functioning satellites. Such debris can severely limit the functionality of our working instruments (they travel at a speed of 45,000 km/h, and even something as small as a 1 cm piece of debris can destroy an antenna, or damage a solar panel). On the other hand, near-Earth objects (NEO) such as asteroids can pose a serious threat to infrastructure and life on the ground, because of their speed entering through the Earth’s atmosphere and hitting the ground or sea. For these reasons, all spacefaring nations are concerned with this issue, and investments in space safety are a signal of this growing problem. To discuss possible solutions and plans of action ESA organized the 2nd NEO and Debris Detection Conference, held at the at the European Space Operational Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany from 24 – 26 January 2023, and to which more than 220 participants from 24 countries attended.
NEO and Debris: a common problem
This second edition brought together the NEO and space debris observation communities, for an international conversation focussing on the synergies between search programmes, orbit determination, and risk management for NEOs and space objects. Key aspects of synergies were telescopes and radar systems, instrumentation, observation techniques, and data processing approaches. At the end of the day, both communities use similar technology and processes to measure space objects: NEO astronomers are looking for natural space objects like asteroids, and the space debris community looks for artificial earth-orbiting objects.
One of the most important topics discussed during the 3 day conference was the importance of a collaborative approach between the astronomical and the space operation community. Data collaboration (enriching data acquisition, improving and simplifying data sharing, building reliable and open data policies), public engagement regarding debris impact risk, and new talent hire were among the priorities stated by all panellists.
“The EU looks at what can be done in this field to set some more clear framework, speed standardisation, guidelines, maybe some obligations to reach more clarity and transparency of how space actors should act in critical situations.” T.F. Dethlefsen
The presentations and papers showed the rapid evolution of the wide range of technology aimed to observe and process measurements. The new release of easy, low-cost trackers (such as LEO Space Surveillance and Tracking Through A Non-Traditional Lens from Raytheon NORSS) demonstrated to be able to provide interesting data. On the other end, in the sky, the conference showed a new class of upcoming space-based debris observation missions that could provide exciting new results.
Commercial and public investments into the acquisition of observational data (passive optical, laser, radar) and the consequential applications finally started to deliver integrated solutions, such as GMV showed in their presentations. On the other hand, major unresolved challenges such as the detection of objects < 10cm, active debris removal (missions with the capability to interact with passive spacecraft or rocket bodies to reduce their remaining orbital lifetime), and in-orbit servicing IOS (missions capable of repair or refill objects already in-orbit), were discussed in the context of further progress.
In 2021, the SSA Programme (Space Situational Awareness) was promoted to become one of the flagship programmes of the European Union, and it has now the same status as Copernicus, Galileo, and the new Iris². The program focuses on three main areas, Space Weather (SWE), atlas monitoring and predicting the state of the Sun and the interplanetary and planetary environments, Near-Earth Objects (NEO), detecting natural objects such as asteroids that can potentially impact Earth, and Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST), watching for active and inactive satellites, discarded launch stages and fragmentation debris orbiting Earth. In the main panel Thea Flem Dethlefsen (Policy Officer, European Commission) expressed that the EU is planning a backup of the US-based IAU Minor Planet centre [note: under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU)] to identify gaps in the current NEO observations and catalogue system in collaboration with the US with direct EU investments. These investments will happen in an open competition, meaning that the industry and academia can also be to take part in this to improve the current assets, for example, fireball cameras to observe lunar impact. Dethlefsen also addressed the importance of responsible behaviour in space, which also links to the legal question of the EU set forth a list of different actions that already started to be implemented.
Siegfried Eggl, (Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, US) expressed from the astronomers’ side the concern of light and radio interference up to the social impact, bringing the example of indigenous societies in New Zealand, who are in very close relations to the night sky. The social dimension adds to the well know issue of satellites limiting telescope views from the ground.
“Some of the satellites are just so bright that we have to shut off the telescopes. And that severely limits our ability to find near asteroids” S. Eggl
One of the highlights of the conference was the presentation about the Re-entry Risk Assessment for Catastrophic Events from Guillermo Ortega (ESA Flight Vehicles and Aerothermodynamics Engineering). He presented a detailed mathematical model able to calculate the breakup and fragmentation processes of asteroids occurring during catastrophic events that produce a large number of casualties and fatalities. The presentation was a dystopic look into the details of the first minutes after a larger object (> 200 m) hit the Earth. This closed perfectly the thematic loop, from astronomers being affected by large satellite constellations, to the commercial space regulation, to the dystopic effects of these issues on the ground.
ESA announced after the conference that the proceedings will be available at the following link: https://neo-sst-conference.sdo.esoc.esa.int/
Valentin Eder has a background in industrial engineering, high-voltage power grid management, spectrum monitoring, robotics, software (Data management and Big Data applications), systems engineering and space environment management. He holds a degree or the University Salzburg in Geographical Information Systems. He is the founder and CEO of Space Analyses Vienna seeking a holistic convergence of Big Data with the Space-Time Continuum and applying the results to domains such as Satellite Communication and Space Debris Management