The environment around our planet

700 satellites are stacked in a more or less orderly orbit the Earth. Few fall to the base, as expected, at the end of the mission. Most continue to wander over our heads, out of control. To date there is only a catalog of this complicated traffic pollution. It’s called JSpOC and is in the hands of Defense. But Europe? Vote in April an ambitious program of space surveillance.

around our planet


What can happen if a small piece hits an instrument in Earth orbit.

It was 1957 when a ball of aluminum with four long mustache earned the Earth’s orbit, becoming the first man-made satellite ( in a simple radio that was beeping ): Sputnik. Since then there are many satellites have slipped more or less neatly into Earth orbit . Some of those vehicles are returned to base , as expected, at the end of the mission. Others continue to wander over our heads now out of control .

To date there is only a catalog of this complicated traffic pollution. And that’s what JSpOC maintained by the Joint Space Operations Center of the U.S. Department of Defense . Classified information – because there are many satellites launched for military purposes – and yet generously made ​​available by the U.S. Defense to international space agencies who request it .

The Space Surveillance Network of NASA and the ESA Space Situational Awareness of who should carry out the task of traffic police in the intricate highways that wind on Earth’s skies may therefore rely exclusively on data that are full of noise. JSpOC , as the oracle of Delphi, which provides information makes it impossible to reconstruct the original data . So much so that even the mere estimation of the objects orbiting it becomes a gamble.

“17 thousand objects above 10 cm in diameter is the fact that we can do based on what we see in the portion of the sky near the Earth,” explains Giovanni Valsecchi INAF – Institute of Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome. “To locate an object , we rely on radar, with which we can see more or less clearly up to 2000 km altitude . For that which is beyond us , we can help with optical telescopes . We talk about objects of which we do not know the construction material , “says Valsecchi . “When in 1999 , with Alexander Rossi and Paolo Farinella , we identified a real danger of collision for the Iridium constellation , the scientific community did not seem to give weight to the thing . The incident of February 2009 between one of commercial satellites in the constellation and the Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 showed us that the problem is even bigger than we had imagined. And today we know better the phenomenon of space debris we still have too few data to assess it”.

Today the Space Situational Awareness – the optional ESA program designed with the aim of performing services for surveillance and monitoring of the solar weather, space debris and Near Earth Objects (NEOs) – is in the implementation phase. Officially launched on 1 January 2009 in the wake of France, Germany and Spain has stalled in part due to the absence of an agreement with the European Defence Agency on classification data. Having set up a program without adequate attention to safety was not a forgivable error, and in 2012 resulted with the exit of Spain and France from the commitment with optional ESA.

Meanwhile, the number of claims due to accidental space explosions is increased to two hundred . Is of little use to an accident report forms for orbital explosions which should be avoided. Especially if there’s going to keep free orbital slots for new missions. And more so if you want to reduce the risk of collisions and damage to expensive equipment . But the € 55 million allocated by ESA in 2009 and reached 75 million in 2013 seem a very small thing in front of the resources allocated by NASA for the debris issue.

200 explosions orbital

200 explosions orbital, 17 thousand small fragments.


Here is the result of poor management of the road space. Each chip, even though it has only a few inches, can become a dangerous projectile that runs at a speed of km/s.

Sure it may not be a simple matter of money. And here comes the European Union with an interesting bill that will be voted on next April. ” The one under discussion in the European Parliament is the SST program – Space Surveillance and Tracking – which provides if approved an allocation of € 70 million in seven years for the creation of a security service satellites ,” explains Claudio Portelli, the Italian Space Agency , which is responsible for the issue of space debris . “The idea is that each State Member will contribute its infrastructure and data in its possession relating to the trafficking of artificial space objects in circumterrestrial orbit. All information, preliminarily assessed by national competence centers for military data classification should then join the European Union Satellite Centre in Spain which will be responsible for processing them and make them available to the operator spatial shift that needs it. ”

An ambitious project, well-aligned with a policy throughout the European community participation, far from the logic of U.S. JSpOC , in the hands of Defense .


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