5 January 2023


Blog, Media Updates, Space

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In February 2022, the European Union (EU) published a Joint Communication on an EU approach to space traffic management in response to the escalating numbers of satellites being launched every year and the potential impact of this exponential growth. The aim is to ensure space remains a safe, secure and sustainable environment. In this article, we look at the key role that the EU External Action Service (EEAS) is playing in steering European space sustainability activities.

The Path to Sustainable Use of Space

Space may be an infinitely vast expanse, but around the Earth it is getting crowded, with thousands of operational satellites and tens of thousands more likely to join them in the next decade. Adding to the congestion are non-operational satellites and more than 1 million items of debris larger than 1cm[i]. Any one of these could damage a functioning satellite. The concern is this could lead to the Kessler Effect, in which the total mass of objects in space is so high that the initial collision gives rise to more debris, leading to more collisions in an unstoppable chain reaction.

In recent years, this proliferation of satellites and debris has mobilized governments and organizations globally, including the EU, to take action on space traffic management to ensure the sustainability of space services. In Europe, there was a significant move forward in February 2022 when the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who heads the EEAS, issued a Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council entitled ‘An EU Approach for Space Traffic Management’.

The role of the EEAS

The fact that one of the parties issuing the Joint Communication is the head of the EEAS underlines that organization’s central role in the EU’s space activities.

Patrick Chatard Moulin, Acting Head of Division, SecDefPol.5 Space, EEAS, describes the problem and the EEAS’s position: “Our societies and economies are ever more dependent on space services and applications for key aspects of our daily life and of our public sector. However, the huge increase in satellites and debris puts the resilience and safety of our space infrastructure at risk. We need to manage space traffic in orbit – and we need to do it now so it does not get out of hand.

“We regard outer space as a global commons, and believe we must address the sustainability of space in a global effort. In our EU approach to space traffic management, we propose therefore pairing regional contributions to space traffic management – including our EU contribution – and cooperation with key partners, such as the USA, with an overall ambition for global cooperation on a multilateral level.”

International dialogue is important because there are around 80 countries that are active in space, with more that want to move into that realm. However, there are no borders in space. And apart from rocket launches, everything else in space is ungoverned by any international laws.

From a European perspective, the EEAS’s view is that a global effort is needed for space traffic management and it should not be directed by a single nation. But on a practical level, it would not be possible to set up a global unified space traffic management system – at least not in the near future. The EEAS is therefore pursuing a multilateral, interoperable approach. And this is why international engagement is so important.

A sustainable future?

The Joint Communication was adopted in February 2022 and includes a commitment that by the end of 2024, the EC will have established a certification mechanism and applied incentive measures towards the implementation of space traffic management standards and guidelines. In the same timeframe, it will also have made a proposal for EU space traffic management legislation.

Summing up, Patrick Chatard Moulin says: “Space has no boundaries – it does not belong to anyone, and whether we are space-faring nations or not, we all to an extent depend on space services and applications and we all have a stake in safeguarding this environment. Let us work together for a safe, secure and sustainable use of outer space for the benefit of all, today and for future generations.”

[i] European Commission; Factsheet on Space Traffic Management; 2022

Main image © ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL