European Union Presses Ahead with Proposal To Lessen Dependence on U.S. for Space Surveillance

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PARIS — The European Commission is pressing ahead with a proposal that it develop a space situational awareness capability to lessen Europe’s dependence on the United States.

The commission hopes to succeed where the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) thus far has failed. ESA’s effort at space situational awareness (SSA) has foundered on opposition from France and indifference from Germany — the two nations in Europe that operate their own SSA capabilities.

French and German officials in recent months have said they will be cooperating more closely on SSA work outside the ESA context.

ESA’s SSA program has now been stripped of its space surveillance and tracking, and is focusing on the less-controversial — and less militarily relevant — space weather and near-Earth object elements of SSA.

The commission, which is the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, wants to spend 70 million euros ($91 million) over seven years to coordinate SSA work already under way in several nations, and to prepare for something more ambitious.

Augusto Gonzalez, head of the Brussels, Belgium-based commission’s space policy office, said the commission said the commission is attacking the problem as a political issue instead of a technical one in the way ESA approached it.

“There was a problem with the technical approach,” Gonzalez said July 16 during the U.K. Space Conference in Glasgow. “We need to solve the political issues. The European Union has charge of common foreign and security policy, so it has the competence for this. So this is the natural place for something like this to be done, given the national security dimension.

“Does this mean the ESA work is going to be thrown down the drain? Hopefully not,” Gonzalez said.

The ESA work also ran up against the fact that France’s SSA capacity is owned and operated by the French military, which from the beginning was skeptical about sharing its facilities as part of a pan-European civilian effort.

The commission is basing its effort on the fact that it will be the owner of Europe’s 30-satellite Galileo global positioning, navigation and timing satellite constellation —  a European GPS — and of the Copernicus program’s series of Earth observation satellites, which are scheduled to launch starting in 2014.

The French Senate, in an assessment of a European SSA initiative in June, remained skeptical about the commission’s proposal, saying in effect that 70 million euros over seven years — the next European Commission budget cycle, starting in 2014 — is too much to do nothing, and too little to do anything of consequence.

The Senate suggested a much more ambitious effort but did not identify areas of financing for it. The commission’s 2014-2020 budget, which proved difficult to pass among cash-strapped European Union member nations, has no obvious place for an SSA program.

The seven-year budget represents a major commission investment in space systems, however — some 11.5 billion euros including 6.3 billion for Galileo, 3.8 billion for Copernicus and 1.4 billion for a mosaic of efforts called Horizon 2020.

Commission officials have suggested that the modest SSA budget, which would have the commission acting as a “storefront” for SSA work in Europe, might be taken from Horizon 2020, or could find funds in the Galileo or Copernicus budget lines.

The U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network of mainly ground-based radars is the acknowledged global reference for determining what is in orbit, both in terms of debris — particularly in low Earth orbit — and in active satellites.

U.S. authorities provide “conjunction analysis,” meaning assessments of possible collisions with active satellites, to ESA and individual European governments on a regular basis.

But GPS signals are also provided free, and that did not stop European nations from spending billions on their own system, in part out of concerns that positioning, navigation and timing technologies are too crucial to be left to others, even a major ally.

Whether SSA will be viewed the same way by European governments is unclear. European heads of state are scheduled to meet in December to review their common security and defense posture, and they may take up the commission’s SSA proposal.

In a July 24 document to the European Parliament and to European heads of state, the commission says it is unacceptable that Europe be dependent on the United States for collision alerts relating to critical European space infrastructure.

The document, which is part of the preparation for the December summit, nonetheless said a European space surveillance and tracking effort could be conducted in an alliance with the United States.

“This service should be available to public, commercial, civilian and military operators and authorities,” the commission says.