WASHINGTON — An internal research and development program using widely available telescopes has evolved into a space situational awareness business for ArianeGroup.
France’s Joint Space Command on Dec. 14 became ArianeGroup’s first customer for GEOTracker, a network of ground-based telescopes monitoring the geostationary arc some 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, the orbit where most large satellites reside.
December’s deal validated what ArianeGroup CEO Alain Charmeau described as an effort to simulate an entrepreneurial atmosphere inside the European space giant to create new products and services.
“To speak with startup language, what we have done is a proof of concept, which means that we put our engineers, the ‘big brains,’ in a garage to see how they could do something with almost off-the-shelf telescopes in order to provide a first performance in terms of space surveillance,” Charmeau told SpaceNews, adding that neither the French space agency CNES nor the ministry of defense assisted in funding GEOTracker. “Now this first operational capability is available and is of interest to Space Command and hopefully other customers.”
GEOTracker consists of six ground-based telescopes — two in France, two in Australia, one in Spain and one in Chile — and can detect objects in GEO down to one meter in size. ArianeGroup operates the network from Les Mureaux, France.
Charmeau declined to say how much ArianeGroup spent on GEOTracker, describing the amount as “seed money” spread out over the last three to four years. Now that GEOTracker has a revenue-generating customer, ArianeGroup will seek to expand the system, he said.
“What we are targeting is more the capability to have our own catalog of objects in GEO or close to GEO,” he said.
Commercial space situational awareness (SSA) companies, notably Analytical Graphics (AGI) and ExoAnalytic Solutions, have gained market traction providing satellite operators with information about the space environment, including issue warnings when objects in space are on a possible collision course. SSA services from both companies were on full display this past summer monitoring three spacecraft malfunctions — EchoStar-3, Telkom-1 and AMC-9 — along the GEO arc.
AGI and ExoAnalytic combined have well over 200 telescopes installed worldwide as part of their efforts to track satellites and debris. Another commercial SSA company, LeoLabs, is using ground-based radars to track satellites and debris exclusively in low Earth orbit. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is building the Space Fence radar system for the Air Force capable of monitoring GEO and low Earth orbit, with full service slated to start in 2019.
As GEOTracker evolves, its initial focus will be on smaller objects in GEO, Charmeau said. Further on, the program could expand to include other orbits.
“It was very interesting to have this new approach, to have our engineers who usually work in a standard mode to develop rocket science equipment, to have them in a more garage-mode developing something. It was a good surprise to see how efficient we have been,” he said.