European Space Agency (ESA) governments tentatively have approved a three-year program on space surveillance that would begin by operating existing ground-based radars and optical telescopes as a single network.


The program would be ESA-funded at the start, but would draw on assets in France, Germany, Britain, Italy and elsewhere that are financed and operated by a mix of civil and military services.


Ambitious plans for a budget of 300 million euros ($465 million) over three years starting in 2009 have been sharply scaled back, but European government officials say there
now is a consensus to approve spending 100 million euros. The final decision will be made in late November when ministers from the 17-nation ESA meet to set a multi
year space strategy.


The European Space Situational Awareness (SSA) program is intended to survey and track objects orbiting over European territory, to image those whose orbits are low enough to permit rough identification, and to monitor space weather. The program also has an element to track near-Earth objects.


While many details remain to be worked out, early indications are that the European system from the outset would make public much less of its data than what the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network routinely makes public in the form of so-called Two-Line Elements, which gives
rudimentary information of objects in orbit. “We are not going to do this,” one ESA official said on whether the European system would add to the store of public data provided by the U.S. network. “We will send our data only to those who really need it.”


The SSA program is the latest example of ESA’s increasing comfort with extending its role beyond the confines of what is strictly scientific and civil in nature. SSA would be managed by an agency whose composition has not yet been decided, but the European Defense Agency likely would have a role in providing input
what European defense authorities would like in terms of products and services.


French military authorities in the past have expressed frustration that the location of France’s Helios optical reconnaissance satellites routinely are made public by the U.S. network, while U.S. military satellites are not included in the data. U.S. and European military authorities
already have begun talks on establishing rules of conduct governing
what would be placed in the public domain now that European authorities have a limited capacity to identify U.S. military assets in space, especially using the French Graves and German Tira ground radars.


Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in a May 7 address to the Milspace 2008 meeting here, which was organized by SMi Group Ltd., that space situational awareness clearly crosses the borders between civil, military and commercial interests. Chilton said trans-Atlantic cooperation in this area ought to be considered.


Lt. Gen. Patrick de Rousiers, commanding officer of the French Air Defense and Air Operations Command, agreed that Europe’s emerging SSA program could be part of a pool of data shared with the United States. In a brief May 6 interview, de Rousiers said that while ESA’s participation as lead financial partner would introduce civil-military coordination and classification issues, French defense authorities are backing the idea.


“ESA is bringing the project to the table and this is an important contribution,” de Rousiers said. “The European Defense Agency could be developed into a single entry point to ESA for European defense authorities, and help define data policy and harmonize civil and military requirements.”


Industry officials agreed that de Rousiers’ comments illustrate how far ESA has come in retooling itself as an agency capable of dealing with defense authorities as well as the scientific and research communities that make up ESA’s principal audience.


German civil and defense authorities also are backing the SSA program. Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the board of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said Europe needs an autonomous capacity to verify what is going on in orbit. Currently Europe is dependent on U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russian space surveillance means.


French Research Minister Valerie Pecresse backed the SSA idea in an April 23 speech at the Toulouse Space Show in Toulouse, France, and Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, said after the Pecresse speech that France will be pushing for adoption of the program in November.


Luca del Monte, part of the SSA project team in ESA’s Office for Security Strategy and Partnership Development, used arguments similar to those heard from the U.S. Air Force in defending the SSA idea. “The European independent utilization of space … depends on the capability to safely operate European space infrastructures,” del Monte said in an address at the Toulouse Space Show. “Increasing dependency on space assets raises concerns because any shutdown of even a part of the space infrastructure would have major consequences for economic activities and for the security of European citizens … Indeed the driver for SSA is the consequence of interruption of space services.”