31 January 2022


Blog, Media Updates, Security, Space

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Aldo Barbieri RHEA GroupAt last week’s 14th European Space Conference, the security and safety of space missions were among the topics under discussion. Aldo Barbieri, Business Director for Germany at RHEA Group, explains why the safety and security of space missions are important, especially given that some space missions are themselves important for security.

What aspects are considered important for space safety?

ESA’s original Space Situational Awareness programme concentrated on space debris and space weather. These are important, but are not the only space-related issues that threaten our safety and security on Earth. So one of the newer segments in ESA’s programme is looking at the threat from near-Earth objects, such as asteroids, that could cause serious problems if they hit the Earth.

Space debris is still a hot topic, however, because of all the satellites being launched. The main causes of debris are from satellites when they are no longer in operation or, more seriously, as a result of in-orbit explosions, collisions or anti-satellite tests. When two satellites collide, they can smash apart into thousands of new pieces, creating lots of new debris. Ideally, all organizations launching satellites would abide by international rules that require them to not affect other missions, but some countries and organizations ignore these. The problem is that if just one satellite or craft gets destroyed – deliberately or accidentally – it can result in debris that can seriously compromise other missions.

What are the current challenges to space safety?

The low Earth orbit altitude is critical for doing science missions. Most of the Earth observation missions are in low Earth orbit, such as Sentinel missions, CryoSat-2 and Aeolus, and future missions such as EarthCARE and Biomass (both due to be launched in 2023). But it is becoming very crowded, which is dangerous because we need to be able to monitor things like pollution and climate from space in order to tackle issues facing the Earth.

This is why in the new Space Safety Programme, where RHEA is playing a big role, there is a segment called Clean Space, which covers the ‘green’ aspects of a mission. Through this initiative we pay attention to the issue of space debris not only after a mission is launched, but from when we define the requirements of a new mission. That might mean designing it to have enough propulsion left to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up at the end of its life. Clean Space also covers things like the types of launchers and fuel used.

When we talk about safety, we are considering how to defend the Earth from potential threats from space. For example, as well as the obvious threats from space debris and near-Earth objects, space weather can have serious consequences due to its electromagnetic effects on Earth, which is why the future Lagrange mission to monitor the sun will be important, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study solar science and improve predictions of space weather events.

Getting better at predicting space weather events will also help us protect spacecraft, including building them to be more resilient. If a space weather event disrupted the Galileo system, for example, it would be disruptive for someone using it to navigate in a car but very dangerous for passengers in an aircraft.

RHEA is the prime partner delivering scientific and technical expertise to support these segments, whether it is space weather, planetary defence, space debris or Clean Space. We have a team of 14 engineers and scientists and I’m the service manager, in addition to my role as Business Director for RHEA in Germany. We have been involved in this for over 10 years and leading this since 2014, winning the latest contract in January 2021.

And what about space security?

When we talk about security it refers to the protection of individuals, organizations and property against external threats that are likely to cause intentional harm. Today, the main security threat to space agencies, operations centres and so on are cyberattacks. At RHEA, we help space sector organizations to ensure their entire infrastructure, data and applications are resilient in the face of escalating security threats. Our range of space services and solutions exploit our combined experience in space and security and are based on a security-by-design approach. RHEA is collaborating with ESA in particular to support it with increasing the security of its systems, including with the Security Cyber Centre of Excellence at Redu in Belgium.

When I was a space operations engineer, there was a cyberattack, but it was really to explore the vulnerabilities of ESA’s systems and show off the attacker’s capabilities. ESA was less interesting as a target back then, but now that it is involved in activities such as Copernicus and Galileo, that is changing and is why ESA is paying so much more attention to cybersecurity. Already there are different levels of physical security in place at different control centres, depending on the type of mission – some are very restricted!