Space safety at the European Space Operations Centre

An ESA image reflecting space safety

Rolf Densing, ESA Director of Operations and Head of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), speaks to SciTech Europa about space safety and situational awareness.

AS Europe’s centre of excellence for satellite operation, the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) is home to the engineering teams which control spacecraft in orbit, manage the European Space Agency’s (ESA) global tracking station network; and design and build the systems on the ground that support missions in space. Since 1967, more than 80 satellites belonging to ESA and its partners have been successfully flown from Darmstadt, Germany.

SciTech Europa met with Rolf Densing, ESA’s Director of Operations and Head of ESOC, at the 11th European Conference on Space Policy in Brussels, to discuss space safety and security.

ESA will propose at the upcoming Ministerial Conference €200m per year for its space safety programme, which is an evolution of the currently-active Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme. This comprises of three segments: space weather, space surveillance/tracking, and near-Earth objects. At the ESA Ministerial in Lucerne in 2016, Densing explained, the DG was mandated by Member States to evolve the SSA programme into a more comprehensive space safety programme. This means that now, those involved in the initiative investigate space weather with ground-based observations complemented by some space-based missions.

The Space Weather Observatory

The programme that will be proposed at the next ESA ministerial will include what Densing referred to as “a big space weather observatory”, which he said will be “permanently, 24/7, delivering data to the three big ground stations known as ‘ESTRACK’. We would like to place it in Lagrangian Point 5 (L5), where nobody has ever been before. This is 150 million km from Earth and 150 million km away from the Sun, so the gravity from the Sun and the gravity from the Earth cancel each other out, therefore meaning that a mission there would not consume too many resources and can therefore have quite a long life.”

This observatory has to be very resilient against space weather because that is exactly what it is there to measure; and Densing is confident that it will be able to withstand the harsh radiation and temperatures it will experience as the technology for this already exists. As it will “not be too difficult” to get the observatory ready, a proposal for this mission will be brought to the ministerial. It is hoped that this mission will be launched in 2025 and will cost roughly €500 million.

Regarding the other two segments of the SSA programme, Densing suggested that Space Awareness and Tracking would primarily be left with the Member States, saying: “They take pride in it, they have the national security implications and they are very protective of this. If we allow the Member States to continue to focus on this area then it frees us up to look at other areas, such as artificial intelligence, collision avoidance, and so on. Indeed, we have such a lot of experience in the area of space debris, so it makes sense for us to try to focus on that if we can.”

The “Flyeye” telescope

When it comes to the near-Earth objects segment, Densing revealed that ESA are now building a “Flyeye telescope”. He explained: “This is like a mosquito’s eye; it has a very wide field of view (45 square-degrees). We want to scan the whole sky as fast as we possibly can, so the telescope has 16 highly sensitive sensors which can scan a hemisphere in 48 hours.”

Densing also explained that the telescope will be utilised for “permanently watching out for NEOs [NASA Earth Observations]…there are many asteroids that we don’t even know exist, and we can also experience challenges in detecting them when they are coming straight out of the Sun as there is a technical difficulty to observing them.”

ESA would like to place a Flyeye telescope in the northern hemisphere; and an agreement was signed at the Intermediate Ministerial Meeting (IMM) in Madrid between ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to place this telescope on Monte Mufara in Sicily, where light pollution is minimal.

In addition to this, Densing mentioned that ESA would also “like to add an active deflection mission, at least a technology demonstration mission” to its portfolio. This will be done in partnership with NASA, on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. “The USA would, in a demonstration mission, shoot an impactor onto the so-called ‘Didymoon’, while ESA would provide an observatory with which to conduct a detailed scientific analysis on what has happened.”

We cannot go on polluting space

Densing detailed the importance of the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space, saying: “We cannot go on polluting space as we are doing today. Eventually there will be an avalanche effect caused by debris colliding amongst themselves. This will result in a steep increase in the number of dangerous debris particles, and we have to avoid this.”

Densing added: “The number of satellites in orbit continues to increase, and yet no one is working to remove them once they have reached the end of their life. We need to be smarter. This is a global challenge and needs global measures.”

ESOC as a driver of innovation

On ESOC’s future development, Densing said: “In 2018, we did a strategic reorientation and I would like to now see ESOC as a driver of innovation in the area of operations. We have huge potential in this area and the industry is a partner in this. We have more satellites and operations to take care of than ever before; and we need to make sure that we do not fall victim to innovation. We want to be the driver of innovation and the enabler of industry.”

He added: “[We need to] think about a new innovative way of doing operations. We have signed a cooperation agreement with DLR’s German Space Operations Center and we have a letter of intent for a co-operation agreement with Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and we invite all institutional European operations entities to join us.”

Densing also underlined the need to invest in infrastructure. “At ESOC, we have heritage systems in some areas and, in many instances – and I am sure that this is also true outside of ESA and ESOC – operators never want to change a successful system. But we will have to. We want to have a live multi-mission infrastructure and while this exists in part at ESOC at the moment, I want it to be totally integrated.”

Because space safety is a new and evolving branch of science with a very strong dynamic, Densing highlighted the importance of getting “a foot in the door” and the need for “Member States to look at this field and consider contributing to it, because there is a danger that they might miss the opportunity, which would mean that their industries would become locked out. This is a team event, and I would hope that everyone recognises the global challenge that we are up against and the fact that everybody should participate.”

Rolf Densing
Director of Operations
Head, European Space Operations Centre (ESOC)
European Space Agency (ESA)
Tweet @esa
www.esa.int/About_Us/ESOC

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