Scenarios for EU–US cooperation
The broad landscape of SSA activities and their importance for orbital sustainability, as well as the changing operators and policy, mean that there are a number of opportunities for EU–US cooperation, and for the EU to increase its capabilities and become a key player in leading the responsible use of space.
The one area in which potential opportunities will be very limited, if not impossible, is military SSA activities. International involvement in the US CSpOC is limited to the UK, Canada and Australia, all members of the Five Eyes community, as well as France and Germany. Any possible involvement of additional European countries would only occur as the result of a larger intelligence and information sharing partnership, although US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein has stated that he expects the CSpOC to continue to grow. The EU should therefore focus on the civilian aspects of SSA and the changing landscape of providers.
It has been suggested by a number of experts that SSA needs to become a civil mission with the military augmenting and supporting national security programmes as their mission. That will need a significant shift in US operations (which is happening slowly) and a greater sharing of data. Data integrity and data trust are essential. The concept of the EU SST as a civil programme should provide the required momentum to help with this paradigm shift. However, some important issues need to be addressed to support this. First, the civil programme should be the primary goal. Second, EU funds need to be focused on developing sensors, capabilities and experience that complements and contributes to existing activities rather than replicating what is currently available. For Europe that means not spreading funds and resources across a number of countries but focusing on only one or two to support the rest of Europe. Third, sensors dedicated to STM are essential, as one of the difficulties in space tracking for the military is that many of its sensors are primarily focused on missile defence. Fourth, cooperation among EU contributors needs to improve and this must be rectified before Europe can provide an effective support mechanism for global SSA. As a multilateral organization, the EU SST framework also comes with its own set of challenges in cooperation and information integration between member states. It can look to the EU Satellite Centre (Satcen) in Torrejon, Spain, as an example of understanding and dealing with the sensitive nature of aggregating national derived data and distributing it among EU member states.
The EU’s tradition of support for openness and civil society means that it is well placed to fill the gaps in the other extant SSA systems by being independent, open and free at the point of service.
Nevertheless, the EU’s tradition of support for openness and civil society means that it is well placed to fill the gaps in the other extant SSA systems by being independent, open and free at the point of service. An EU-led open system, with the option for other providers to feed in their data if they wanted to, could rapidly supersede the US SATCAT as the system of choice by virtue of its open availability, and with relatively modest investment. Such a system could also be best placed to increase international cooperation with countries such as Japan and India as well as smaller countries looking to responsibly operate their limited assets and contribute to broader space sustainability. The EU can also look to support and promote initiatives such as the Space Data Association (SDA) and the DARPA-led Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), which provide forums for international operators to exchange data and cooperate to avoid collisions.
One question that Europe needs to address is cooperation with the UK following Brexit. There should still be opportunities to collaborate between the EU and the UK. One aspect that needs to be looked at is any potential UK involvement in the EU SST programme. In whatever way this plays out, Europe should look to the UK for its experience and expertise, and perhaps also to its ability to act as a bridge to the US. Both the UK and EU member states could host commercial sensors. In the UK, radars or passive radio frequency reception sites like Goonhilly Earth Station, a facility in Cornwall that provides commercial tracking in LEO and MEO, are most likely, as the weather is not ideal for optical facilities. It is currently unclear how the transition of space tracking from the US Air Force to DoC in the US will affect the data flows from sensors such as RAF Fylingdales. Currently, data from that radar cannot be shared worldwide due to the provisions of the UK–US treaty (the station is operated under the UKUSA Agreement), which also prevents it being optimized for space tracking. For example, it would be possible to implement a new focused tracking mode at Fylingdales to detect and track smaller objects than it currently sees (albeit with the need for cueing data from the Space Fence) but this is not allowed under the treaty.
There is a need for mutual exchange of STM data between the EU and the US, but there is a problem regarding the classification and accessibility of data (this is largely a problem on the US side). A multilateral data-sharing agreement between the US and one or more EU member state would greatly help, but the US is often reluctant to implement multilateral agreements. This may change with moves to commercialize STM in the US, but with militaries globally increasing their orbital activities, there is likely to remain a significant portion of data that is not considered releasable. Nevertheless, the EU could contribute independent sources of information on all trackable resident space objects and events. As noted above, one of the major problems with SSA is that rarely, if ever, does a single hypothesis explain the evidence. This implies ambiguity on inferred quantities and events and thus clouds or hinders informed and meaningful decision-making. Global SSA data harmonization is therefore critical for curating the required high quantity and diversity of data and information. The EU could help or even lead in this effort.
The broader definition of SSA allows for additional scenarios for collaboration. The first of these is around the issue of space weather. The EU can support and promote the provision of operational weather services as foreseen in the proposed EU space programme. A major space weather event could potentially cause more damage to satellites and ground stations than the other threats and hazards and would render other aspects of SSA obsolete. At present, both NASA and ESA, as well as other international actors, have mechanisms for monitoring solar activity, although current prediction capabilities are limited and there is a need for more missions that increase the ability to understand solar activity and provide longer prediction times. It is also important in this regard to ensure exchange of scientific research outputs and data related to warnings so that all satellite operators, regardless of location, receive the necessary information.
A major space weather event could potentially cause more damage to satellites and ground stations than the other threats and hazards and would render other aspects of SSA obsolete.
The second area is intelligence. As European states increase their military assets in space there is a need for intelligence gathering regarding the intentions and capabilities of potential adversaries such as Russia and China. While cooperation in this regard will have the same difficulties as that of military STM activities, if Europe increases its space intelligence capabilities it may prove useful to the Five Eyes states to reach an information-sharing agreement. An increase in European SSA capabilities provides states with additional intelligence and the ability to better track and classify objects that are considered to be a potential danger. As the US and Europe continue close military cooperation, particularly through NATO, possible future EU monitoring of adversarial space activities is likely to be a welcome contribution to SSA by its allies.
A further area of SSA is the security of ground stations that operate satellites as well as the security of manufacturers and the supply chains on which they depend. Even if there is an optimum situation in tracking space objects and a complete, shareable catalogue, if ground stations are at risk from intentional attack or natural hazards the dangers to satellites are still present. Similarly, satellite supply chains are often very complex, and problems with just one component could affect the operations of satellites, creating an additional level of uncertainty. The EU can look to lead the way or partner with others such as the US to ensure adequate levels of security for ground stations of satellite operators and strong regulation of the space industrial sector. This could be done by promoting the best practices of large, multinational corporations that work in both the US and Europe and, often through military contracts, have experience in incorporating such measures. Putting this issue front and centre will help to ensure that ground stations, particularly those run by commercial operators, are aware of the potential risks as well as the mitigation measures that they can put in place.
Overall, there are a number of potential scenarios for collaboration. However, it should be understood that not all within the SSA community see the future of these activities as being state-led. The preferred option of many is that industry, academia and other interested parties lead the work. This is in part because of the timescales involved in government negotiation and decision-making. One suggestion is therefore to build a solution from the bottom-up, forming a consortium to harness and produce transdisciplinary SSA that takes advantage of a broad range of knowledge and expertise. This could be done through the formation of a growing coalition of the willing to demonstrate incremental capability and added value. The EU could play a key role in fostering an environment that would allow such development and advocate a truly international effort that includes the US.