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European Space Agency pushes for space debris treaty

8 months ago 32

The European Space Agency (ESA) is expected to put a Zero Debris Charter, dealing with “junk” orbiting the Earth, on the table at a meeting of EU space ministers this week, amid mounting concerns over the increasingly overcrowded space.

The new debris charter will be put to signature for EU ministers in charge of space in Sevilla this week, ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher told a group of reporters, including Euractiv, ahead of the meeting.

The green light for the charter will stand as a “commitment to de-orbit the space assets at the end of their life to clear out outer space”, Aschbacher said.

Space has become an increasingly challenged area, where major actors such as China, India, Russia, the United States and the Europeans are competing for access and room to host their satellites and making it more crowded every month.

Satellites are a necessity in everyday life, as they provide essential services such as internet connection, secure communications networks for the military, earth images, and will soon monitor factories’ carbon emissions.

The Zero Debris Charter initiative would “display a strong commitment towards achieving global leadership in space debris mitigation and remediation,” Aschbacher said when first unveiled the move back in June during the Paris Le Bourget Air Show, calling upon state actors and the space industry to commit to it.

Concretely, “it foresees that they commit when launches the satellites, to de-orbit the space assets at the end of their life” starting in 2030, Aschbacher told reporters including Euractiv last month.

The Europeans were the first ones to table an international agreement to limit space debris. In 2010, the UN published a set of Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, but there is no binding agreement on the matter.

Technologies needed 

More than 35,140 debris objects are currently tracked, the European Agency said last month, and the number continues to surge.

“Space debris causing loss of multiple satellites”, which the United Nations describes as “our eyes in the sky”, is listed as a tipping point in a study published by the international body last month.

The tipping point is reached when the systems society relies on no longer function as originally intended, which may cause a catastrophic impact on today’s way of life. Unbearable heat, melting mountain glaciers and risks making homes unaffordable, also are on the list.

Aschbacher said it is therefore “necessary that we tackle the issue of space debris proactively because if we cannot rely on the satellites, there will be major problems”.

How to de-orbiting satellites from their initial position in outer space once they’ve reached the end of their lifetime remains a question.

Future technologies must take into account how to de-orbit satellites which may not have enough fuel to move around, which may cause small hazardous debris and cause collision accidents while smaller bits could burn into the atmosphere, ESA’s chief told reporters.

In that regard, Aschbacher advocated for the European Commission to propose legislation, to incentivise the industry to research and develop technologies for the purpose of safe de-orbiting.

In the same mindset, the European Commission has announced it will propose a European Space Law that sets rules for space traffic management (STM) definition for safe access to space and return from outer space next year, it announced in its work programme published last month. 

Achbacher, involved in the drafting of the proposal, said he hoped signatures join in “the coming months”. There will be no deadline for states or industries to sign the document.

“Europe can be a champion on this”, Achbacher added.

Some large aerospace companies already signalled their interest in June in committing to developing the technologies needed to achieve the de-orbiting of space assets, such as French Thales Alenia Space, German OHB and French Airbus Defence and Space.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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