Europe Moves Out Tentatively on Space Situational Awareness

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) inaugurated a space weather center April 3 as a visible signal of its determination to move forward on a space situational awareness (SSA) program even as its two largest members, France and Germany, embark on a related but separate bilateral effort.

These two nations, wary of the military implications of space surveillance and tracking of satellites, will pursue a program whose ultimate goal is not clear beyond the common use of existing French and German satellite-tracking radars.

Germany has nonetheless agreed to take part in the two less-sensitive SSA components, space weather forecasting and the identification of potentially dangerous near-Earth objects.

French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso told the French parliament March 26 that France’s SSA work, mainly the Graves bi-static radar, was built with French military investment and that keeping it a dual-use effort “is extremely important.” Fioraso said the work with Germany would be conducted outside of ESA.

An official with the German aerospace center, DLR, confirmed April 2 that the two nations have decided to work by themselves, at least for now.

ESA’s SSA program, when it was being designed, solicited input from the European Defense Agency, which is part of the European Union, for advice on military user requirements for space tracking. That work will now be set aside until a full-scale SSA program gains traction.

Further complicating ESA’s SSA work has been the lack of firm backing by the European Commission in its 2014-2020 budget.

Philippe Mettens, chairman of the Belgian Space Policy Office, said during the April 3 inauguration of the Space Weather Coordination Center in Brussels that the lack of strong signals from the European Commission means that ESA will have charge of space weather activities for at least the coming few years.

With Europe’s two biggest space powers largely on the sidelines, ESA struggled to win support for its SSA program at last November’s meeting of its member governments. What was originally intended as a program valued at 300 million euros ($400 million) over three years was scaled back to 75.5 million euros, and the agency secured only 46.5 million euros in firm commitments for the three years ending in 2016.

Fourteen nations, including Germany for two of the three program elements, agreed to contribute.

Most of the approved program will be devoted to space weather forecasting, which is still a young science viewed as having direct applications to the health of critical infrastructure including power plants, electrical lines, orbiting satellites and even commercial aircraft routes.

In a presentation during the center’s inauguration, ESA’s space weather activities director, Juha-Pekka Luntama, said the so-called Halloween storms of October-November 2003, caused by a two-week spurt of solar activity, disrupted multiple satellites and ground installations for about two weeks.

Satellites whose functions were compromised include ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, whose star trackers were blinded by particle radiation during the storms; ESA’s Smart-1 lunar orbiter, whose solar panels were damaged; NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite, which was forced into safe mode during the radiation storm and suffered memory loss; and the U.S. Defense Department’s DMSP F16 weather satellite, whose microwave sensor was damaged. Japan’s Adeos-2 Earth observation satellite failed completely during that period in what may or may not have been caused by the solar activity.

Luntama said that on the ground the Halloween storms forced nuclear power plants to operate at reduced output and forced air traffic controllers to place restrictions on polar flight routes out of concern for the storms’ effect on radio communications at high latitudes.

“We need an operational space weather monitoring system,” Luntama said. “Users want forecasts and we can’t do long-term forecasting now. We don’t understand the solar physics well enough.”

ESA’s current space weather program will not end up with an operational capability by the time it comes up for renewal in 2016. But program managers have been able to take advantage of an opportunity by agreeing to pay for the continued operations of ESA’s Proba 2 technology demonstration satellite.

Launched in 2009 into a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, the 130-kilogram Proba 2 was designed to operate for two years. It had threatened with forced retirement before the SSA program board agreed to take responsibility for its operation starting July 1.

Two of Proba 2’s five instruments — an extreme ultraviolet imager and a radiometer — are designed to examine solar phenomena.

Nicolas Bobrinsky, ESA’s SSA program head, said his program board agreed to spend 1.2 million euros to operate Proba 2 for 18 months. At the end of this period, he said, a decision will be made whether to put the satellite into a graveyard orbit or continue its use through 2016.

The immediate focus of the SSA effort will be to develop prototypes of wide field of view telescopes, developing applications for space weather prediction and stitching together a network of national and European assets that could contribute to space weather forecasting, Bobrinsky said.