PARIS — The White Paper on Defense and National Security says monitoring objects in space, both debris and active satellites, is becoming more important as the most popular orbits become more heavily populated.

The 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) in November had wanted to start a program to monitor orbital objects. The effort was sharply scaled back following French resistance to having ESA manage what French military officials have said is a military capacity.

France’s Graves radar is owned and operated by the military. Having a civil agency like ESA take charge of a space surveillance program “was problematic,” one French military official said. This official said cost was another hurdle.

France and Germany have nonetheless decided to move forward with a bilateral effort that is being managed by defense authorities in both countries.

In a response to SpaceNews inquiries, the German Defence Ministry on April 18 issued the following statement:

“European Council conclusions ‘Towards a space strategy for the European Union that benefits its citizens’ adopted in May 2011 underpinned the necessity to develop a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability as an activity at European level to develop and exploit existing national and European civil and military assets. The Franco-German bilateral cooperation is driven by the intention to support the development of a SSA activity at the European level. This initiative is based on both civil and military requirements and involves civilian and military actors. 

“Germany and France have substantial capabilities in the field of Space Situational Awareness as well as ongoing civil-military cooperation in this important area. Germany has set up the German Space Situational Awareness Center (GSSAC) in Uedem, near the city of Kalkar. GSSAC has been set up in a joint effort of the German Federal Ministry of Defence and Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. GSSAC is thus demonstrating a high level of integration of military and civil requirements. It acts as the focal point for SSA-related aspects and combines the contributions from a large variety of actors within Germany ranging from radar observations to numeric modeling of re-entry events. 

“We see a responsibility to improve the effectiveness of SSA in Europe through pragmatic steps, particularly in times of limited financial resources. The complementary use of the existing assets in France and Germany is such a step. Germany strongly supports a cooperative approach that leaves sovereignty over the capabilities with the contributing States and takes the sensitive nature of SSA data into account. This approach is intended to be open for further contributions of other actors who are interested to cooperate and who can bring substantial capabilities to the table. This approach can therefore be seen as a starting point for further developments of a future SSA capability at the European level.”

Asked to describe the advantages of a bilateral effort over an ESA program, the statement said:

“SSA, especially space surveillance and tracking, is challenging in various respects. This includes questions of governance, international cooperation, data security, technical issues and the complexity of bringing different capabilities and procedures together. With regard to the situation in space we see the need for a first step in order to make best use of the existing capabilities as soon as possible. The protection and security of space based assets is very important for Germany as well as France. 

“Bilateral cooperation mitigates a lot of the challenges we are confronted with and is therefore seen as the most valuable and affordable option we currently have. It is a viable first step in a very long process, which we are willing to pursue with our partners in Europe and beyond.”


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.