Since the end of the Cold War there has been a world-wide shift in the overall security situation. The consequences of globalisation, international terrorism, the demand for energy and raw materials, the perils imposed by climate change, natural disasters and the collapse of entire states are all part of our current scenario of risks and threats which has transformed our worldwide concept of security. This is also reflected in the new guidelines issued by the Federal Ministry of Defence.

To meet these security issues, Germany’s security architecture is comprehensive, and structured as a network. The new, wider definition of security had led to a national public policy, characterised by multilateral coordination and collaboration between institutions and departments.

Space science and technology are making a significant contribution to security. Its importance is reflected in the Federal Government’s space strategy. Used in concert with other services, space-based technology holds the key to the solution of global challenges, in areas such as crisis control or the operation of early-warning systems. Security-political requirements have become one of the essential drivers of German space activities.

The next important step is to align these new tasks with adequate business solutions. This means that wherever it is politically possible, to give preference to co-operating within a national network rather than pursuing individual initiatives. A joint industrial policy and dual-use technologies offer broad benefits to society. Germany’s forthcoming satellite project, Heinrich-Hertz, is an example of this cross-departmental policy.

The security role of space-borne systems

The basic requirement for any decision is accurate and detailed knowledge of the current situation. The better a situation is understood, the better the quality of its evaluation and of the decisions taken. Space infrastructure is an essential technical prerequisite for informed decision-making at a political level. In the case of military operations, communication, Earth observation and navigation satellites provide intelligence on a worldwide basis in near-real time.

However, the benefit of these services is not for military users alone. In the case of a disaster, civilian relief organisations (Red Cross, Technisches Hilfswerk THW) also have access to these capabilities. An important link in the chain of communication between the scene of a disaster and relief operations is the Center for Satellite-Based Crisis Information (ZKI). The ZKI is a 24-hour service operated by DLR’s German Remote-Sensing Data Center (DFD.

In the case of a natural or environmental catastrophe, the service provides a rapid supply of processed and analysed satellite data for humanitarian aid and civil-security purposes. Depending on the specific requirements, the satellite data are transmitted to national and international political decision-makers, situation rooms and relief organisations and are also available to the public.

Satellites need protection

The increasing importance of orbital infrastructures for politics and society makes it necessary for satellites to be protected against natural and man-made hazards. The natural hazards include solar eruptions, whose electromagnetic fields can severely upset the function of a satellite, but also collisions with meteorites. Yet, greater and more dangerous hazards are those of human origin. Spaceflight activities of past decades have left space cluttered with a large amount of debris: upper stages of rockets, old dysfunctional satellites, and tens of thousands of other pieces. A heavy increase of space debris was recorded in February 2009 after a collision between two communication satellites.

Future launchers and satellites will be designed with the aim of leaving as little debris as possible in orbit. This, again, is one of the new guidelines of Germany’s space strategy: Space activities must be guided by the principle of sustainability, in order to preserve the benefit of spaceflight for future generations.

However, designing new technology to reduce future space debris is not enough. Even today, the risk of a satellite being hit by a small object in space is imminent, which makes it necessary to analyse and catalogue the space debris situation on an ongoing basis, thus creating a body of space situational data. This forms the basis for any further activities, such as issuing an alert whenever a satellite is on a collision course either with another satellite, or with a space debris object.

Space situational awareness in Germany

Given the great political importance of space situational awareness, the Federal Government has decided to establish a National Space Situational Awareness Centre in Uedem in the Lower Rhine region. Space situational awareness ensures part of Germany’s security at national level. Working across several government departments, the Space Situational Awareness Center implements the provisions for security at national level. With the German Federal Airforce acting as coordinator, military personnel and civilian employees of the Space Administration will be monitoring space and, whenever necessary, ordering evasive manoeuvres for satellites such as SARLupe, the Federal Armed Forces’ reconnaissance satellite system. They will also recommend evasion routes to commercial satellite operators, to name only a few of this national agency’s tasks.

Space situational awareness in an international context

Monitoring the space situation is not only a national task but requires a high level of international collaboration. In Europe, Germany and France are so far the only two countries owning any major infrastructure to record the space situation. The two countries co-operate to set up a shared space situational awareness system.  

Currently, the most advanced array of sensors is owned by the Unites States of America. The intelligence obtained from that system provides a major part of the security of European satellites. Germany therefore co-operates closely with the United States.

In the next few years, the European Commission will take over the operation of some 40 satellites. They include the GMES satellites as well as the Galileo fleet. In a spirit of co-operation as partners, Germany will join the European Commission in developing a European space situational awareness system without giving up any of its national sovereignty over its own sensors systems.

The European Space Agency, ESA, will equally contribute its share. At its Darmstadt-based European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) scientists perform internationally recognised basic research on space debris. Germany intends to expand the capacity of the Centre, to secure its international position. Other possible research areas for ESA in the space-situational context could be to study space weather and Near-Earth Objects (NEO).

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