What dangers do astronauts face
Know what happens in space: ESA program for space situation assessment
The earth is threatened by a variety of natural dangers from space: cosmic rays, solar winds, asteroids, comets and meteorites. There is also another problem: space junk. In order to be able to counter these threats, ESA started a program for space situation assessment in 2009, the first phase of which is to lay the foundations for a European space surveillance system by the end of 2012. This includes the development of a powerful radar.
Like all celestial bodies, the earth is surrounded by a hostile space, space. This is traversed by high-energy cosmic radiation from the depths of space as well as particle radiation from the sun - the solar wind. Both interact with the upper layers of the earth's atmosphere and can thus lead to disruptions in communication systems or the energy supply in our high-tech world. But the electronic assemblies of the satellites orbiting the earth are also at risk.
Other worries are the wandering asteroids, meteorids and comets in the solar system, which occasionally can cross the earth's orbit around the sun. There is definitely a risk of collision with drastic consequences for mankind. And the remains of old impact craters on the earth's surface show that this is not just a theory. If such an object is large enough, large parts of earthly life could well be destroyed as a result of the impact, as happened with the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.
Europe and space
Another, more recent phenomenon is what is known as space debris - a human-made problem. For more than 50 years satellites have been shot in various orbits around the earth. This creates scrap: burned-out rocket stages, detached connecting parts, disused satellites or parts of exploded rocket stages and satellites. Approximately 18,000 larger objects orbiting the earth and which endanger the approximately 1,000 active satellites are currently recorded. In February 2009, for example, a disused satellite - Kosmos 2251 - collided with an Iridium communications satellite. More information on this topic.
What happens in space?
Free access to space is without an alternative for all developed industrial countries. This is particularly true of Europe. Satellites have long since taken over important infrastructure tasks (communication, navigation) or provide important data for numerous branches of industry by means of remote sensing of the earth. Both tasks - research and use - are part of the planetary everyday life of space-traveling homo sapiens.
Without satellites, communication, air traffic and transport would collapse, there would be no more weather forecasts and no navigation. In other words: Our modern society could no longer successfully solve today's tasks without the infrastructure in space. Both the astronauts in space and the spacecraft must therefore be protected from danger.
In order to be able to initiate suitable measures, it is first necessary to determine the potential risk qualitatively and quantitatively. To strengthen the role of Europe in this global process, the ESA started on January 1, 2009 a “forerunner program for space situational awareness” (Space Situational Awareness Preparatory Program). This is intended to build up own capacities in Europe to record the situation in space. Based on this experience, a fully operational monitoring service is to be created in the period from 2012 to 2019.
The program comprises three main areas of work:
- Finding and tracking man-made objects orbiting the earth (active satellites and space debris).
- The monitoring of the high-energy radiation coming from the depths of space and the sun, which are responsible for numerous space weather phenomena.
- The observation of near-earth objects - of asteroids, meteorites and comets - that could collide with the earth.
Own space radar planned
The main goal of Space Situational Awareness is to create its own powerful surveillance capabilities to ensure Europe's access to space and the safety of its satellites. Because Europe is still dependent on institutions in other countries for the procurement of important data. This is particularly true of the surveillance of space debris. Here the European experts mainly have to access data from the American Space Surveillance Network.
In addition to optical telescopes, high-performance radar systems that Europe does not yet have are required to detect the small scrap objects. That is why the Spanish company Indra Espacio recently received an order as part of its predecessor program to build a test model of such a radar. The Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Technology (FHR) from Wachtberg near Bonn is also involved in the development and implementation. They already have a wide range of experience in this area. With its 34-meter antenna, the FHR's Tira radar can already detect details of a satellite in orbit that are accurate to the centimeter.
In all of its own activities, however, international cooperation with other services such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, USA) or the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC, USA) is to be expanded in the future.
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