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Foreign Policy

Europe can help prevent disaster in outer space

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column. His report “Running out of Space; European security in Space” was published by Friends of Europe.

BRUSSELS — A disaster in outer space is waiting to happen. 

Accumulating debris threatens to trigger a cascade of collisions, which would disable satellites and render orbits, vital to sustaining our globalized, high-tech economy and preserving our security, unusable. 

Though we may not think of it, we rely on space for everyday communications, a multitude of transactions, television and weather and climate data, as well as for intelligence, navigation and timing — yet there is scant awareness of the mounting danger in so-called low Earth orbit. No international panels have assembled, no global action to “save space” has been pledged at high-profile intergovernmental conferences, and no Greta Thunberg’s have led youth protests against the trashing of the cosmos. 

And as access to space is at risk from a toxic combination of commercialization and weaponization, the European Union can help prevent this looming disaster. What it must do, however, is invest more in secure communications, take a higher profile in space traffic management and drive diplomatic efforts for arms control in space.  

The junk currently hurtling around, hundreds of kilometers above our heads, includes bits of old rockets, defunct satellites that didn’t fall back and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere as meant to, bolts and rivets that fell off spacecraft, and debris caused by electromagnetic storms as well as meteoroids. It also contains thousands of pieces of shrapnel deliberately caused by anti-satellite missile tests — especially those by China and Russia in 2007 and 2021, respectively — conducted to demonstrate an ability to knock out enemy satellites in wartime. 

Additionally, the commercial, scientific and military exploitation of space by governments and private operators is growing exponentially. According to the Director-General of the European Space Agency Josef Aschbacher, as many satellites were launched in 2020 and 2021 alone, as in the entire previous 64 years since the first Sputnik probe blasted off from the Soviet Union in 1957 — firing the starting gun on the original space race.  

Back then, however, this was a manageable contest between two nuclear-armed superpowers.  

Now, some 58 countries are active in space, and commercial operators are overtaking state actors as the scramble for power and profit has outstripped our flimsy international legal framework, originally designed to preserve the heavens as a common good of humanity. The noble goals enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, declaring that no one could appropriate celestial bodies and seeking to promote peaceful international cooperation, have been mugged by commercial and geopolitical realities. 

The main laws that apply in space today are those of the jungle or of the Wild West — “first come, first served” and “finders keepers.”  

What the world needs is a space traffic cop, a global body to allocate parking spaces and issue mining permits, with fines for littering, a binding obligation to take out your own trash, and space road sweepers. 

Currently, however, in the race to occupy space real estate and mine celestial minerals, there’s no international regulation of who’s entitled to launch what, park where, dig up what, or how to dispose of obsolete spacecraft. The only licensing authorities for launches are national, and they are under no obligation to coordinate with other countries, or do more than simply notify the toothless U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, which is paralyzed by geopolitics. 

While this gridlock persists, a single company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has put up roughly half of all active satellites in space — more than 2,200 out of an estimated 4,500. Moreover, the company has licenses from the United States government to launch 12,000 more, and business plans to deploy up to 30,000 by 2030, spreading its high-speed Starlink broadband service across the globe. 

European Space Agency’s General Director Josef Aschbacher | Andre Pain/AFP via Getty Images

U.S., British and Chinese competitors are hot on the billionaire’s heels with their own plans for mega constellations, threatening a free-for-all in increasingly congested orbits between 450 to 2,000 kilometers above Earth. 

But what about the EU? 

Though the EU has some world-class space assets — including the Galileo navigation and positioning system and the Copernicus Earth observation network — the bloc has fallen behind the U.S. and China in key areas of the space race, such as launchers, satellite constellations and space situational awareness, which will be key to security and prosperity in the 21st century. 

Put bluntly, Europeans often only know if a piece of debris or another space object is on course to crash into their precious satellites, if the U.S. military tells them. Without this free American public service, which former President Donald Trump’s administration decided to place under the Department of Commerce, the EU would be largely blind in space. 

Moreover, EU assets are mostly unprotected against potential predators who have developed a range of so-called counter-space capabilities, including laser dazzlers, ground-based jamming and spoofing, cyberattacks on downlinks and prowling space vehicles that can stalk and spy on satellites.  

France publicly denounced one such unfriendly approach by a Russian probe on a Franco-Italian military satellite back in 2018. 

Finally, while Europe’s lag in space is due partly to a dearth of public investment compared to its biggest rivals, it also has to do with a long-standing reluctance to view space as a strategic domain. Despite pockets of excellence, the EU’s “New Space” sector faces the same obstacles as any other European innovator in patenting inventions, scaling up start-ups, and securing access to finance. It also struggles with a slow, bureaucratic public tendering system skewed toward big incumbents. 

It’s time for Europe to get real about space. Yes, it’s a playground for billionaire tourists on vertical ego trips and a canvas for fantastic scientific exploration and discovery. But it’s also a big, fat unregulated market, as well as a theater of strategic rivalry and even possible war. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the military utility of space only recently. 

Privately owned, mostly American corporations provided high-quality, near real-time satellite imagery of Russian forces amassing around and rolling into Ukraine, denying Moscow strategic surprise. Russia also launched a cyberattack on day one, knocking out thousands of terminals connecting the Ukrainian military and civilian users around Europe with U.S. internet provider Viacom’s satellites. The hack then backfired, when Musk quickly stepped in, giving Ukraine terminals connecting to his Starlink satellites instead. 

But while France has been able to help Ukraine with satellite intelligence, Europeans have otherwise been mostly absent from the space dimension of the conflict. 

To get back into the game, Europe should collectively invest in space enablers, such as a secure connectivity satellite constellation. It also needs reusable micro-launchers, smarter and more maneuverable satellites, and space defense tools providing situational awareness, tracking, space-based radars, surveillance cameras, and mini-satellite clusters to shield key assets.  

To be taken seriously, we need to combine a push for arms control, starting with a moratorium on anti-satellite weapons tests, with the development of some sort of deterrent non-kinetic weapons of our own. 

Europe could actually be a force for fair regulation, sustainable traffic management and arms control in space — it just needs to look to its own defense.

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