European Space Agency satellite narrowly avoids SpaceX collision

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by Jessica Tabinor on

    INDUSTRY NEWS | AEROSPACE | 4 MIN READ

  • A satellite run by the European Space Agency (ESA) has been forced to fire its thrusters and perform a collision avoidance manoeuvre to avoid crashing into a SpaceX satellite.

  • ESA said that artificial intelligence will be part of the technology solution for managing satellite traffic in the future.

A satellite run by the European Space Agency (ESA) has been forced to fire its thrusters and perform a collision avoidance manoeuvre to avoid crashing into a SpaceX satellite.

Announcing the narrowly avoided collision on Twitter, the ESA said that on the 2nd September, the Agency's Aeolus Earth observation satellite fired its thrusters, moving it off a potential collision course with a SpaceX satellite in the Starlink constellation.

Aeolus has been in orbit since August 2018, while the Starlink satellite was one of 60 launched aboard a Falcon 9 on May 2019. According to Forbes, SpaceX refused to move its spacecraft – dubbed Starlink 44 – forcing ESA into evasive action for Aeolus.

The tweet read:

“Experts in our #SpaceDebris team calculated the risk of collision between these two active satellites, determining the safest option for #Aeolus would be to increase its altitude and pass over the @SpaceX satellite,”

“The manoeuvre took place about 1/2 an orbit before the potential collision. Not long after the collision was expected, #Aeolus called home, as usual, to send back its science data – proving the manoeuvre was successful and a collision was indeed avoided”

Are there any rules to avoid this in space?

There are no rules in space and most of the communication is done through emails but with an ever-increasing amount of space traffic, Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety at ESA explains that this is

“an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space means more space traffic.”

 “This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved,” 

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Space traffic technology solutions

ESA said that artificial intelligence will be part of the technology solution for managing satellite traffic in the future. Manually detecting potential collisions and plotting evasive manoeuvres is a labour-intensive process and will not be sustainable as space becomes increasingly congested.  

“This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated manoeuvre coordination” the ESA said.

“These avoidance manoeuvres take a lot of time to prepare – from determining the future orbital positions of all functioning spacecraft to calculating the risk of collision and potential outcomes of different actions,”

ESA is preparing to automate this process using artificial intelligence, speeding up the processes of data crunching and risk analysis, from the initial warning of a potential conjunction to the satellite finally moving out of the way.

“As the number of satellites in orbit increases, due to ‘mega-constellations’ such as #Starlink comprising hundreds or even thousands of satellites, today’s ‘manual’ collision avoidance process will become impossible.”

Under its Space Safety activities, ESA plans to invest in technologies required to automatically process collision warnings, coordinate manoeuvres with other operators and send the commands to spacecraft entirely automatically, ensuring the benefits of space can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

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