Astrium To Propose Exoatmospheric Missile Intercept Demonstration

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LE BOURGET, France — Astrium Space Transportation will deliver a proposal to the French Defense Ministry in the coming weeks to conduct a demonstration of a missile defense system that would destroy a target vehicle in space, the company’s chief executive said June 21.

Briefing reporters here during the Paris air show, Alain Charmeau said the unsolicited proposal would outline a system based on Astrium’s experience in building France’s ballistic missiles as well as the two Spirale missile warning demonstration satellites, which are in orbit.

Charmeau said that including ground tests and the launch of both the exoatmospheric kill vehicle and its target, the demonstration is likely to cost between 200 million euros and 300 million euros ($280 million to $420 million).

Astrium’s proposal is being sent to the French arms-procurement agency, DGA.

Both the French government and the NATO alliance have said missile defense are top priorities. Astrium is part of a consortium led by SAIC of the United States that is studying missile defense architectures that would protect Europe from missile threats that, in the current environment, are seen as most likely coming from North Africa and the Middle East.

With excerpts from Iranian television touting that nation’s missile and rocket expertise playing in the background, Charmeau conceded that setting a priority and financing it are two different things, but he said France and NATO are both able to find monies for missile defense if they set their minds to it.

In France, whose defense budget is under the same pressures affecting most NATO nations’ defense spending, “I believe that room could be found to finance” the demonstrator, Charmeau said. “On the NATO level we have a choice of buying U.S. technologies or to use existing [French and European] technologies developed in the space sector.”

The two Astrium-built Spirale missile warning demonstration satellites were designed as a low-cost mission. One of the consequences of that is that the satellites were placed not in circular geostationary orbit, but in an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit, the dropoff point for most telecommunications satellites. Given their small size and budget, the Spirale spacecraft do not have sufficient fuel to climb to geostationary orbit.

Notwithstanding that handicap, French Defense Ministry officials have said the Spirale mission has already yielded sufficient data that France will need if it decides, on its own or with European partners, to build an operational missile warning system that would include a satellite in geostationary orbit and a terrestrial long-range radar.

The missile defense demonstration would feature the launch of a target vehicle, followed by an attempted intercept during the target vehicle’s ballistic flight trajectory just outside Earth’s atmosphere, which is the longest phase of flight between the missile’s launch and its re-entry into the atmosphere as it approaches its target.

Charmeau said Astrium, with European partners, could build an operational missile-intercept program for about 1 billion euros. “It’s a lot less complicated than building the ATV,” he said, referring to the Astrium-built Automated Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned vessel that delivers cargo to the international space station. The second of five planned ATVs recently completed its mission at the orbital outpost.