France has demonstrated its seriousness about preserving continuity in overhead reconnaissance with its Nov. 30 contract award to French industry for two high-resolution optical imaging satellites to succeed the two Helios 2 spacecraft now on orbit.

The $1.1 billion order with an Astrium Satellites-Thales Alenia Space team was placed despite the fact that no other nations have signed up as junior partners on the program and also despite the continued lack of progress on a common ground system for European optical and radar Earth observation satellites that is planned by Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. French officials had long warned that data continuity concerns would force them to make the award before the end of the year, with or without a commitment on the Multinational Space-based Imagery System, or Musis.

The Helios 2A and Helios 2B satellites, launched in December 2004 and December 2009, respectively, were designed to operate for five years, although their current in-orbit health suggests they will last longer than that. France also has backup capabilities in a pair of civil-military Pleiades satellites scheduled for launch in 2011. Still, because satellites can fail without warning, prudent planning required that the Optical Space Component be placed under contract this year so that the first satellite can be ready for launch in December 2016.

The Musis discussions, meanwhile, remain bogged down over questions such as the value of radar versus optical imagery and the fact that the countries actually building Earth observation satellites — France, Germany, Italy and Spain — would like to see those investments counted as their contribution to the common ground system. Earth observation satellites are expensive, of course, but that’s the reason Belgium and Greece aren’t building any of their own — they don’t have the resources, which also means they’re hardly in position to foot the bill for the entire Musis ground segment.

The countries with satellites will have to invest in ground infrastructure in the absence of a cooperative effort; with Musis, there at least is the possibility that they will save money in this area, particularly over the long haul. Clearly there’s a desire to share data among the prospective Musis partners, especially since each brings something different to the table: France has highly capable optical systems while Germany and Italy operate radar satellites, for example. But to date, this data sharing has been limited, based on bilateral agreements and co-investments in satellite systems. Musis would facilitate ready access to a highly diverse set of Earth observation capabilities by all six partner countries. It’s the common-sense thing to do.

Hopefully, France’s Optical Space Component contract award will serve as the wake-up call that breaks the Musis impasse. There’s still time to hash out an agreement, but with France designing its next-generation satellites under the assumption that they will not utilize a common ground infrastructure in Musis, that window is fast closing.