ESA to use AI to protect infrastructure and tackle space debris

The European Space Agency (ESA) named AI as a strategic technology for reducing space garbage and protecting infrastructure – in orbit and on the ground – from cyberattacks.

Primary space-based threats include space weather, naturally occurring space-born objects like meteoroids, and artificial space debris.

Space weather describes the conditions in space influenced by solar activity, and it can disrupt satellite operations and power grids on Earth. Additionally, naturally occurring celestial objects such as asteroids pose the risk of collisions.

One of the most pressing issues is artificial space debris, consisting of defunct satellites, rocket stages, and remnants of past space missions. The flying garbage in outer space poses a grave danger to operational spacecraft, as collisions with these objects can lead to serious damage and the generation of more debris, exacerbating the problem.

To address these challenges, space agencies worldwide are actively engaged in monitoring and mitigation efforts. ESA’s Space Safety Programme (S2P) aims to mitigate and prevent the effects of hazards from space to ensure the safety and sustainability of space activities and the infrastructure on the surface.

“ESA is implementing a “Zero Debris” approach, with the objective that ESA missions entering the design phase after 2030 will not leave behind any significant debris objects in orbit,” explained Holger Krag, Head of the ESA Space Safety Programme.

ESA has outlined in its S2P plans to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to significantly improve the sustainability, security, and resilience of the agency's space missions and operations.

“ESA has embraced Artificial Intelligence as a strategic technology,” said Mariella Spada, Head of Ground Systems Engineering and Innovation at the European Space Agency. “It unlocks efficiency gains through AI-enabled automation and is also of key importance to future cybersecurity developments by enabling intelligent detection of threats to space systems.”

Addressing hostile cyber threats

The space economy is growing, and space infrastructure has become critical. “The number of smaller, more agile spacecraft in use around the Earth is growing significantly, and these craft are becoming more and more integrated into our terrestrial infrastructure,” said Dr. Daniel Fischer, Head of Ground System Segment and Cybersecurity Engineering at ESA.

Cybersecurity threats have become as important in protecting space infrastructure as protecting it from space-based hazards. According to Fischer, most cyberattacks on space infrastructure target ground-based systems and assets. “Resilience, especially from a cybersecurity perspective, is a key feature in times of growing geopolitical tensions and increasingly hostile cyber threats,” he said.

Fischer believes that ESA’s deployment of a Cybersecurity Operations Centre at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) and the European Space Security and Education Centre (ESEC) will provide Europe with the capability to detect cybersecurity attacks more efficiently.

“Research and development in ground segment cybersecurity capabilities is fundamental to address the needs of future missions,” he continued.

“ESA is pushing development in the area of zero-trust ground segments, secure space-link communications, space cybersecurity engineering framework, as well as key developments in adjacent technology fields such as Artificial Intelligence and Digitalisation.”

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