The French Defense Ministry remains undecided about which satellite systems will succeed its current-generation Earth observation and telecommunications spacecraft but sees signs that an initial Europe-wide effort could take shape.

France and Italy recently signed a contract giving the Italian Defense Ministry a 2.5 percent share of France’s Helios-2 high-resolution optical and infrared reconnaissance system, whose first satellite, Helios 2A, entered operations in April. Helios 2B is scheduled for launch in late 2008 but could arrive earlier if needed.

Belgium and Spain already had joined Helios 2, with 2.5 percent stakes each. The Greek Defense Ministry has announced its intention to take a 2.5 percent share as well, and a contract is expected to be signed in the coming months, according to Francois Fayard, head of the telecommunications, observation and information division of the French arms-control agency, DGA.

Participating nations pay for their access.

In addition to these cash-for-imagery deals, Italy and France have agreed to share their respective optical and radar satellite reconnaissance systems. Italy will contribute its dual-use Cosmo Skymed spacecraft, the first of which is scheduled for launch in late 2006.

Starting in 2007, when Cosmo Skymed is in service, Italy and France will activate a bilateral image-trading protocol — with no exchange of funds starting at this point — for access to Helios 2.

In press briefings at Alcatel Alenia Space’s satellite manufacturing plant here Aug. 30, Fayard said the image-trading agreement will provide Italy with 5 to 6 percent of Helios 2 imagery. In return, France will have about 10 percent of Cosmo Skymed — the equivalent of half the system’s production of classified imagery. The other half will be dedicated to Italian defense forces.

The remaining Cosmo Skymed data will be for unclassified use by Italian government authorities and a commercial operator that has yet to be identified.

France has a similar agreement in place with the German Defense Ministry, whose military-only SAR-Lupe radar satellites are scheduled to be in orbit starting in 2006. Germany and France are expected to sign a formal Helios 2-SAR-Lupe image-exchange accord in early 2006, Fayard said.

In summarizing France’s optical reconnaissance program, Fayard made no mention of the two high-resolution optical Pleiades satellites scheduled for launch in 2008 and 2009. The French space agency, CNES, is paying for Pleiades on its own and signed a contract in October 2003 with EADS Astrium and Alcatel Alenia valued at 314 million euros ($392 million) for spacecraft construction. While DGA is not taking part, the system is considered by CNES to be dual-use, much like Cosmo Skymed.

Fayard said French defense authorities are ambivalent about Pleiades. “We have some of our people saying that Pleiades will be of no use to us because we will have 15 years of operations of Helios 2,” Fayard said. “On the other hand, we have people reminding us that we use a lot of Spot 5 imagery today, even with Helios 2, and that Pleiades will have the same value. Also, if Helios 2B fails at launch, we would turn to Pleiades. So the debate remains open.”

Telecommunications satellites remain a more complicated issue for those backing a joint European effort. So far, Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany have all decided to build their own military telecommunications satellites despite the cost advantages in collating their requirements in a single system.

But Caroline Laurent, head of the French Syracuse 3 military telecommunications satellite program, said several nations in Europe have made inquiries to the DGA on whether they might purchase access to the two-satellite Syracuse 3 system. DGA also is considering a possible third Syracuse 3 satellite after the first two are launched in 2005 and 2006.

Laurent said France’s agreement to lease Germany up to two transponders aboard Syracuse 3 remains in force, but that the two nations have not worked out details on exactly how much capacity Germany will take, and for how long. The German government is planning its own two-satellite SatcomBw system, which is expected to be reviewed by the German Bundestag, or parliament, late this year following September’s national elections.