Space Talk at OHB discusses threats from space

Panel of experts agrees that Europe has both responsibilities and capabilities

The dangers from space are ever-present – space junk, space weather and asteroids whirl and tumble around the Earth and, from time to time, come dangerously close to it and to satellites in orbit. “The time for action is now,” said Marc Scheper, Head of the Space Transport, Robotic Missions & Exploration departments, thus demonstrating the urgency with which the space nations must deal with the issue of threats from space. Reason enough to dedicate the Bremen session of the #SpaceTalks series of the European Space Agency ESA to this issue. Which missions are currently dealing with warding off and exploring these threats is what the former ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, Chiara Manfletti (ESA Programme Advisor to the Director General), Marc Scheper, host Dr. Timo Stuffler (Head of Business Development at OHB) and an audience of space enthusiasts talked about and discussed at the #SpaceTalks held at the OHB headquarters in Bremen today.

Former ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter at the Spacetalks in Bremen. © Arne Winterboer / OHB

There are many threats from space – a classification

“There is quite a lot happening around us,” so Marc Scheper began his talk. What followed was a pertinent list of this busy activity in space.

First of all, there is space junk. “This might include the debris from satellites no longer in service, upper stage remains or the tool pouch an astronaut has lost,” Marc Scheper described. Why this is dangerous: In the lower orbits of the Earth, “space junk” can reach a particularly high speed of up to 10 kilometers per second, and even a particle with a diameter of one millimeter can cause serious damage to the structure of the satellites it encounters.

Let us now turn to the weather...! Space weather, to be more precise! So-called space weather effects, i.e. space weather phenomena, pose a threat not just to satellites but also to the infrastructure on Earth. Solar activity such as solar storms has in the past led to power failures on Earth, paralyzing entire cities. In 1989, a solar storm triggered a power failure in Canada, leaving 6 million people without power.

Earth is protected from the sun’s (invisible) radiation primarily through its magnetic field. In the event of more intensive solar activity we may nevertheless see failures of sensitive electronics both on Earth and on satellites, even as far as a total breakdown. On Earth, radio traffic, navigation systems and communication and energy networks, in particular, are at risk. And so, Marc Scheper concluded, “We do need a space weather report!”

Its “Lagrange Mission” study, conducted on behalf of the ESA, makes OHB the leader on investigations for a mission to “Lagrangian Point L5.” Located 60 degrees behind the Earth, and despite its immense distance of around 150 million kilometers, it is considered to be particularly stable, as a result of which space probes are seemingly able to “stay put” there. From a Lagrangian Point, a satellite that measures solar activity – which is the focus of space weather effects – is able to send out early warning messages. The objective of the ESA is thus to build up satellite construction to observe the sun in collaboration with NASA. Having produced the study, OHB is now working on also securing the award of the contract for the satellite.

And there is, of course, the threat of asteroid impact. This threat is something with which humanity has been familiar, not least since the release of the Bruce Willis classic, “Armageddon”. 

Danger detected, danger averted?

Almost! “Before we can prepare anything we first have to find the asteroid,” said Scheper. After all, the question is not whether an asteroid will come dangerously close to the Earth but when. In this connection space experts are discussing three possible ways of averting this threat:

  • The kinetic impactor: a spacecraft hits the asteroid at high speed and deflects it from its trajectory.
  • Gravity tractor: a spacecraft alters the asteroid’s trajectory through the interaction of gravitational fields.
  • And, of course, the “nuclear bomb” à la Bruce Willis, which destroys the asteroid. But there is a snag: “This will mean that we have innumerable asteroid fragments hovering around in space, and these can then cause damage.”

None of these methods have been seriously trialed so far, Marc Scheper concludes. The kinetic factor is currently considered to be the most practicable solution. You can read more on the missions in which OHB takes part in our article, Why it is now important to explore asteroids.

The importance of OHB in exploring these celestial objects was also mentioned by former ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, who worked for missions on both the Russian space station MIR and the ISS. The Flyeye telescope currently being built by OHB subsidiary OHB Italia has an opening angle of 7 degrees, allowing the sky to be scanned with great precision and searching for dangerous objects. In addition, during the presentation he ventured a glimpse into the crystal ball: “I am sure that by 2030 we will experience people moving on the moon again.”

Alongside the two speakers, the discussion panel consisted of Dr. Lutz Bertling, member of the Management Board of OHB SE, Chiara Manfletti (ESA Programme Advisor to the Director General) and host Dr. Timo Stuffler. Chiara Manfletti was highly optimistic: “We are inviting all 22 member states to the next ESA Ministerial Council in 2019, when the forward-looking programs will be tabled.” Germany, added Dr. Lutz Bertling, had all the capabilities to provide “the basic infrastructure.” “We need a united Europe and a strong ESA in order to assert ourselves on an international stage.” Reiter continued by saying that it was also about how countries such as China and India could be incorporated. The panel agreed that a strong ESA was the prerequisite for missions to avert threats from space. “And we need to start today.”

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