Dodging debris to keep satellites safe


Our planet is surrounded by spacecraft helping us study our changing climate, save lives following disasters, deliver global communication and navigation services and help us answer important scientific questions.

But these satellites are at risk. Accidental collisions between objects in space can produce huge clouds of fast-moving debris that can spread and damage additional satellites with cascading effect.

In this animation, find out how teams at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, take action to keep satellites safe after receiving an alert warning of a possible collision between an active satellite and a piece of space debris.

When the alert is raised, ESA experts determine the risk of a collision and plan a collision avoidance manoeuvre that can be used to get the satellite out of harm’s way if necessary.

Additional observations of the piece of space debris help the team better understand its path and the risk of collision. If that risk remains too high (typically 1 in 10 000), the planned manoeuvre is carried out to temporarily change the orbit of the satellite until the threat has passed.

Each manoeuvre comes at a price. They take skill and time to plan, cost precious fuel – shortening the lifetime of the mission – and often require instruments to be temporarily shut off, preventing them from collecting important data.

While most alerts do not end up requiring evasive action, the number of alerts is rapidly increasing. Hundreds are already issued every week. Several companies have begun to launch large constellations into low-Earth orbit to provide global internet access. They have great benefits, but could be a source of huge disruption if we do not change our behaviour.

In just a few years, our current methods for avoiding collisions in space will no longer be enough. To safeguard humankind’s continued access to space for future generations, ESA is developing technologies for an automated collision avoidance system.

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  1. Automated collision avoidance! Yeah, that's new! Oh, no, it isn't – SpaceX is doing that with their Starlink satellites since day 1. Only ESA has ignored it so far, instead claiming Starlink satellites to be dangerous for other satellites in space. Wake up, you're behind regarding such systems!

  2. Fico tão contente por cada vídeo que a ESA expõe …sendo destacada e releva a sobriedade com o que trabalha!! Mais uma excelente prova disso, o que faz com que admire muito a ESA!! Não numa gratificação imediata que muitas vezes condiciona a exploração espacial …mas num todo em que resultados dos esforços sejam uma realidade real sem artificialidade! Obrigada ESA…

  3. If SpaceX wouldn't unilaterally decide to spam orbit with their satellites hoping to earn $$$ across the globe – we wouldn't have nearly as much of an issue with stuff on orbit as we do now… and it will only get worse, as they essentially declared war on the market, China and others will spam their own constellations in response. And awful, greedy corporation, that will do anything to pump 1 man's ego.

  4. Hey guys great video. A small hint though: When you spent so much budget for cool animations, maybe you wanna provide the speaker with a better mic, too? It would really amp up the production quality for a reasonable amount of money <3

  5. Fragments of past space initiatives are trapped in orbit around Earth and pose a real threat to our future in space and may increase the risk they pose to active satellites. Thanks to ESA for innovating solutions, you are the best. ?? We love you very much ! ❤✨

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