The future of EU–US cooperation in space traffic management and space situational awareness

This report from the UK think tank Chatham House provides an overview of the current landscape in SSA and space traffic management as well as possible scenarios for EU–US cooperation in this area.

As more space activities develop, there is an increasing requirement for comprehensive space situational awareness (SSA). Summary Space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) are essential for sustainable near-Earth orbit. International cooperation in SSA and STM is vital with the growing number of satellite operators and the increasingly complex space environment. The various definitions of SSA and STM are ambiguous. Understanding the activities that fall under each term can better assist in finding areas for cooperation and collaboration. SSA has historically been a military activity, leading to an incomplete public catalogue of its use and barriers to sharing information with other states and the commercial sector.

The rise in private space actors has increased the number of commercial STM providers and, with plans in the US to move responsibility for STM to civilian control, there will likely be more opportunities for international collaboration, particularly through the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) programme. Individual EU member states possess developed STM capabilities, but overall these are still some way behind those of allies such as the US. Further investment in STM infrastructure and programmes is required for the EU and individual European states to be an essential partner to the US and add value to the global effort. There are worldwide challenges, both political and technical, to providing STM coverage, which may lead to a lack of collaboration and gaps in understanding of activities in orbit. Existing sensors have limitations in terms of the size of objects that can be detected and the precision with which their movements can be predicted. These capability gaps represent opportunities for the EU to contribute. The EU can build on its tradition of support for openness and civil society by creating a system that fosters an environment of cooperation and collaboration involving industry, commercial STM providers and the wider international community. Although collaboration in STM is vital, the EU should also aim to tackle issues within the wider definition of SSA including space weather, intelligence and the security of ground stations. The EU is well placed to become a global leader in SSA and STM. However, it needs to take into consideration the current political and technical landscape when making decisions regarding investment in capabilities and the pursuit of international partnerships.

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