“There is more and more debris in space, it is a threat to our satellites and our astronauts”, warns the head of the European Space Agency

Head a bit in the stars, but above all very down-to-earth and concrete issues. On Friday, the Senate hosted the European interparliamentary conference – not yet interplanetary – on space. For the first round table, this morning, beautiful people: Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), Philippe Baptiste, Executive Director of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), Stéphane Israël, Executive Chairman of Arianespace and Riadh Cammoun, Vice President for Thales Alenia Space.

Among the many questions, space pollution comes up regularly. He is not thin. This is the question of “the sustainable management of space”, “in a context where the multiplication of objects and infrastructures brought into orbit greatly increases the risk of collision, explosion and accident”, reminds Chairman LR of the Economic Committee, Sophie Primas. , opening. We’re not just talking about a few old satellites. “More than a million pieces of space debris of at least one centimeter are in orbit today, while the launch of at least 20,000 additional satellites is announced in the next 20 years”, emphasizes the senator. While the EU Commission is preparing a regulation on the management of space traffic, Sophie Primas notes that “as legislators in the various European countries, we must pay close attention to this”.

“Once a week we have these collision avoidance maneuvers to protect our satellites”

This is the question of the safety and sustainability of space, the Director General of the European Space Agency has it in mind. “There is more and more waste in space. It is a threat to our satellites and our astronauts,” warns Josef Aschbacher. “Once a week we have these collision avoidance maneuvers to protect our satellites from this debris. This is an increasingly frequent problem”, can only state the head of the European agency, who also mentions the astronauts from the International Space Station, who must “change course to avoid a cloud of waste”.

For his part, Philippe Baptiste, CEO of CNES, notes that “we talk about cleaning up space, waste, pollution”, but “before you try to recover the waste generated – and I’m not saying you shouldn’t invest in it – the first thing you have to do is agree on a set of minimum rules”, namely “when you launch a satellite, you have to be sure that it will orbit cleanly around itself. France is ahead of the game. Concretely, it involves this “part of the satellite’s fuel which will be used to deorbit it. This is just as much shorter life for the satellite”, recognizes Philippe Baptiste. A commercial disadvantage that must be accepted, the CNES manager believes.

“This dependence on Russia has cost us a lot in the launch sector”

Recently, another hot topic has been invited into space circles. The war in Ukraine and its consequences: “Withdrawal of Russia from the European spaceport Kourou”, “cancellation of planned launches of Russian Soyuz rockets, from Baikonur”, “the sudden stop of production in Ukraine of the upper stage of the Vega launcher and Vega -C”, another launch vehicle from the European Space Agency, lists Sophie Primas. It is therefore necessary, “for geopolitical reasons, to give us an independent European launch capacity.

“This dependence on Russia has cost us enormously in the launch sector, with, for example, the suspension of the Soyuz program”, confirms Josef Aschbacher, who specifies that “we no longer have access to this technology because we have terminated this cooperation” . For more autonomy, the head of the European Space Agency calls for “restoring our independence for the materials, the components that we have so far procured from Russia”. “Russia is a very painful problem for Arianespace”, adds Stéphane Israël, but “it is a situational problem”, tempers Arianespace’s executive chairman.

“Space is populated by new threats”

In this troubled context, Riadh Cammoun, vice president of Thales Alenia Space, talks about “security in space”. Because “space is populated by new threats that can disrupt satellite systems”. It is necessary to “identify the risks” or even thwart them. What the head of Thales Alenia Space affirms, in selected terms and with some understatement: “We can protect our sovereign assets by initiating an escort capable of identifying the threat in the vicinity and neutralizing it”.

In the image simultaneously broadcast on the screen, a small satellite of sorts detaches from the main satellite and approaches the threat to neutralize it. The word laser appears on the slide. Explanation, which Riadh Cammoun does not give in detail: In 2019, the former Minister of Defense, Florence Parly, announced that he wanted to equip French military satellites with laser weapons. A capacity for self-defense against threats from space.

“The more it will go, when we take off, we will have to lift a finger to find out if we are not disturbing Mr. Musk’s constellation of satellites”

Risk of space war, but also trade war. Europeans know this well with the arrival of Space X and its reusable launch vehicle, which has benefited from 12 billion euros in aid from NASA or the US Department of Defense. “Without NASA, without public funding, Space X would not exist,” emphasizes Josef Aschbacher. The future Ariane 6 launcher, which cannot be reused, is delayed. For Philippe Baptiste, we must “succeed in marketing Ariane 6 as soon as possible”. “We need to both consolidate Ariane 6 and Vega-C and organize competition with new players in a controlled way,” adds Stéphane Israël of Arianespace. Several national projects have been launched in Europe. “France participated in this competition with MaïaSpace”, a launch vehicle that will be reusable for low orbit, developed by ArianeGroup. But Stéphane Israël warns: “These forms of project-based competition must not destroy the convergence” between European actors.

This commercial question intersects with the question of the use of the space. “The theme of space as a common good, common heritage of humanity, is increasing. And that only makes it more essential to prevent an actor, it must be said, Space X, from trying to appropriate this low orbit, that’s a fact today,” warns Stéphane. Israel, which launches: “And I assure you that the more it will go, when we have to take off, we will have to lift a finger to know if we are not disturbing the constellation (of satellites) of Mr .Musk. I want to avoid being in this situation.” Space, a galaxy of questions, problems and threats to deal with.

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