Space debris objects, which are not in scale, in Earth orbit. Credit: ESA/European Space Operations Centre

LE BOURGET, France — Europe’s fitful attempt to create an independent space surveillance network took a step forward June 16 when five nations formed a consortium to coordinate their existing optical and radar tracking telescopes in a five-year effort funded by the 28-nation European Union.

In an agreement signed at the Paris Air Show here, the five nations — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain — will make available their existing assets on behalf of the EU’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Framework.

The European Union has budgeted 70 million euros ($80 million) between 2015 and 2020 for its space surveillance effort, which is distinct from a similar program under way at the European Space Agency.

The ESA program is notably lacking in a space-tracking capability beyond assessing the threat from near-Earth objects. Its other focus is space weather. Space surveillance and tracking was left out of the ESA mission because those European governments with existing space-surveillance assets had hesitated to contribute resources to a program that might have military implications.

The European Union program, initially approved in 2014, clearly states its dual civil-military ambition to reduce Europe’s dependence on the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Russia has a similar program that is generally considered less sophisticated than the U.S. version, and China has space-tracking assets as well.

“Beside the information provided by the U.S., such a service will give more autonomy to Europe in this crucial field,” the five consortium members said in a joint statement.

The five nations’ approvals came in the form of signatures by the heads of these nations’ space agencies. All operate telescopes that can be used to track at least some orbital objects, in both low-Earth and geostationary orbits.

The French capacity includes civil telescopes but, more importantly the Graves bi-static radar located in southern France, which is owned and operated by the French Defense Ministry.

Jean-Yves Le Gall. Credit: CNES/S. Charrier
CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall. Credit: CNES/S. Charrier

The French space agency, CNES, is rare among European space agencies in having a formal military tie, with the Defense Ministry providing part of CNES’s annual budget. CNES’s dual nature permitted CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall to sign the consortium agreement on behalf of the French military.

The consortium, in keeping with an EU recommendation, will create a Security Committee to determine who will have access to space surveillance data in conjunction with the EU Satellite Center in Torrejon, Spain, which takes on space-based surveillance jobs for EU member governments.

The next step will be to determine how the EU’s 70 million euros will be divided among the five partner nations.

French air force Gen. Henry de Roquefeuil, who is military counselor to the CNES president, said that while 70 million euros over six years is a pittance compared with what would be needed to establish a full-fledged European counterpart to the U.S. capacity, it is still enough money to make a difference in the maintenance and upgrade of the five nations’ existing assets.

France’s Graves facility is overdue for an upgrade, which has been delayed because of the French Defense Ministry’s already overstretched budget.

The European Union created the Space Surveillance and Tracking Service after concluding that such a capacity is necessary to monitor and protect the EU’s two space infrastaructure programs -— the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation and the Copernicus network of Sentinel environment-monitoring satellites.

The five nations will need to act quickly now to create the necessary conditions for EU financing, including a common view of which nation will receive what financing, in order not to lose the 2015 slice of the EU budget.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.