Europeans Scale Back Ambitions in Space Monitoring

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BRUSSELS — Europe’s ambitions of creating a robust independent network of ground sensors to track objects orbiting over European territory have foundered on the hesitation of some governments to let civilians, and particularly the European Space Agency (ESA), take charge of the effort, government and industry officials said here Jan. 30.

As a result, the 20-nation ESA, which in 2008 began what it hoped would blossom into a long-term effort to include monitoring of space debris and space weather in addition to tracking operational satellites, has been forced to scale back its work.

“Some governments are clearly not ready to share this data,” said Gen. Patrick de Rousiers, chairman of the European Union Military Committee. “Different nations have agreed on government-to-government exchanges, but complete sharing is not yet accepted.”

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Addressing the Fifth Conference on EU Space Policy here, de Rousiers, a former commanding officer of the French Air Defense and Air Operations Command, said he personally has no trouble with a civilian organization like ESA spearheading a space situational awareness effort. He said it could aid efforts to prevent the militarization of space, and to track orbital debris.

But it will take time, he said, for the idea of a mixed civil-military program to secure broad support.

ESA in 2008 had proposed a roadmap toward a full-scale space-monitoring effort that would start with an upgrade of existing facilities managed by French military and German civilian authorities before extending to include dedicated ground-based radars.

That program was put on hold, with ESA governments approving just 50 million euros ($68 million) over what was supposed to be three years but was extended to four when the governments delayed a scheduled conference to decide their overall space policy and associated budgets.

In the meantime, the European Defence Agency, which is an arm of the European Union, was tasked with assembling a list of user requirements that could inform ESA’s new program.

In the run-up to the November 2012 ESA ministerial conference, ESA again scaled back its space situational awareness proposal after it became clear that the largest expected contributors, particularly France and Germany, had not lined up behind the effort.

Even ESA’s four-year proposal, with a total budget of 75.5 million euros, was able to collect less than two-thirds of the requested amount. France declined to invest at all; Germany committed to an investment of just 5 million euros.

Claude-France Arnould, chief executive of the European Defence Agency, sought to portray the ESA program in a favorable light, saying the fact that ESA has any kind of space situational awareness effort is a good sign.

The eventual shape of a future program in which ESA, the European Union’s executive commission and the European Defence Agency would participate, and who will manage it — often a thorny issue in European political affairs — can be settled later, Arnould said.

France’s Graves bistatic radar, which sweeps low Earth orbit to detect passing objects, is undergoing an upgrade scheduled to be completed this year. The facility, built in 2004 by the French aerospace research institute, Onera, is owned by the French arms procurement agency, DGA.

Germany has created a dedicated Space Situational Awareness Center that is expected to reach operational capability in 2020. Germany’s 32-meter-diameter Tracking and Imaging Radar, TIRA, is often used in tandem with Graves. TIRA has a smaller field of view and can provide a sharper image of individual objects that are detected by France’s Graves.