opean Space Agency (ESA) is investigating the creation of a quasi-commercial body that would operate a network of ground- and space-based sensors to forecast space weather and provide, to a restricted audience, a space-surveillance service to track satellites and debris in orbit, according to ESA and European industry officials.
The idea, officials said, would be to offset part of the cost of establishing a space-surveillance network by selling space-weather data to governments and other subscribers, much as some meteorological data is commercialized in Europe today.
“We have already seen at the [World Meteorological Organization] that some WMO member states are talking about an operational service on space weather,” said Luca del Monte of ESA’s security policy office. “One possibility would be for ESA to develop the prototype infrastructure, and then to hand off to an operational entity.”
ESA for the past two years has
various studies to determine
how it might be involved in a European security program without too obviously slipping the bounds of its charter, which restricts the agency to non-defense work only.
A multi-mission space surveillance network that could track satellites flying over Europe, monitor the development of space debris and also perform a space-weather service is one of the areas the agency has identified as part of the security field.
The commission of the 27-nation European Union
also is looking at how space assets could serve a broader security role and has created a small budget line in its research budget for space-surveillance studies.
European government officials also have evoked the possibility of having a space-surveillance network included in the European Commission’s existing European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection (EPCIP), designed to protect key assets. Keeping manned and unmanned European space missions clear of orbital debris, it is argued, is in line with this program’s mandate.
ESA officials say the program is a classic example of the inherently dual-use nature of many space programs. Creating a civilian version of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, would complement the global Space Surveillance Network operated by the U.S. Defense Department, which helps satellite operators worldwide – including in Europe – to avoid collisions in orbit. France, Germany and Britain operate limited space-surveillance systems that would be harnessed to form the basis of a European program, officials said.
Addressing the 2nd International Military Space Conference here Sept. 19 organized by the French AAAF aerospace association, del Monte said there may be a business case for taking one piece of the space-surveillance mission – space weather – and turning it into a business.
“Developing a business model like this is at risk of becoming a hot button” as ESA crafts its proposed space-surveillance program in the coming months. ESA government ministers are scheduled to meet in November 2008 to set ESA’s multi
year program objectives and budgets and the space-surveillance or “Space Situational Awareness” proposal is likely to be a key new program proposal.
The U.S. Space Surveillance Network is a global network of radar and optical sensors tracking space objects. Much of the data it gathers is public, but some of it particularly data about classified U.S. spacecraft is not. Some European military officials have argued that Europe needs its own network to verify the U.S. data and to complete it where necessary.
Del Monte said that space weather is another area where the U.S. Defense Department is the acknowledged world expert but does not share data freely. He said the U.S. GPS navigation satellite constellation in medium Earth orbit, which carries several payloads unrelated to positioning, navigation and timing, also performs a space-weather service but does not make it widely available.
“The space-weather information from the GPS platforms seems to be the most important source of information but it is not openly available to all users – only military users,” del Monte said. “What we imagine is a complementary service that could turn out to be a good example of trans-Atlantic partnership.”