Space surveillance, harmonized national Earth observation ground networks, and data-relay satellites are the three priority research areas for the European Space Agency (ESA) in the field of security-related work, according to Luca Del Monte, policy officer of the agency’s security policy office.

Del Monte said ESA is positioning itself to invest in several research areas that are inherently dual-use as it seeks an admittedly back-stage role in Europe’s emerging security and defense policy.

Addressing the Milspace 2006 conference organized by SMi Group Ltd. here March 8-9, Del Monte said ESA believes that space situation awareness — knowing what satellites are flying over European territory — is becoming of concern to several European governments.

Ground-based sensors are already operational or planned in France and Germany, but to date there has been no coordinated European program to survey the space environment.

“What we are looking at is a global situation awareness,” Del Monte said. “Because we are ESA, it has to be dual-use from the outset. There would be multiple users.”

ESA and the 25-nation European Union’s executive commission are working to coordinate their investment in space development, and space-based security research is one of the priority areas expected to receive substantial funding in the European Union’s next multi year research program.

An initial version of this program had been labeled “Space and Security” as a line item in the budget, which sets European Union spending from 2007 to 2013. A final budget is expected to be decided late this year.

ESA hopes to take advantage of a renewed focus on environmental and security research to move closer to defense-related programs that otherwise the agency would be forbidden to consider. ESA’s founding convention limits the agency’s work to development for “exclusively peaceful purposes,” but in recent months that has been interpreted to mean “non-aggressive.”

“There will not be any ESA-designed military satellites,” Del Monte said. “But we are looking for a niche.” He said ESA has opened discussions with the European Defence Agency, which has indicated that one of its focus areas will be to encourage existing and planned ground systems for European military Earth observation satellites to be standardized. ESA has a similar program, called Oxygen, to harmonize technical interfaces at these ground installations.

Space surveillance, space-based Earth observation and a host of other dual-use technologies, particularly in satellite communications, have been funded by ESA as it inches closer to areas of special interest to Europe’s military authorities.

Frank Zeppenfeldt, a multimedia-satellite engineer at ESA’s Estec technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, said ESA has been developing telecommunications technologies of interest to military planners for years, but has never sought to highlight the work.

“We are now allowed to talk about this,” Zeppenfeldt told the conference. Cryptography for satellite ground communications terminals, anti-jamming technologies to protect satellite transmissions and certain satellite payload technologies — all have been developed with ESA funds and have sparked the interest of prospective military users.

“ESA would support the use of such systems in security or defense demonstrations or exercises,” Zeppenfeldt said. “ESA is willing to provide some of the satellite capacity it owns on some of these systems at no cost.”

ESA owns capacity on the Amazonas telecommunications satellites operated by Hispasat S.A. of Spain. On board Amazonas is the AmerHis Internet Protocol-based payload, which permits connectivity with multiple spot beams.

“AmerHis has attracted the interest of the U.S. Department of Defense for the Global Broadcasting System, and the German and Spanish defense ministries,” Zeppenfeldt said.

ESA already has a data-relay satellite, called Artemis, in geostationary orbit. It has permitted links between ground managers and low-orbiting Earth observation satellites, and also has served to test satellite-to-satellite laser optical communications links.

Del Monte said a next-generation data-relay satellite system, as well as an initial space-surveillance program, are among the security-related missions that the agency is studying for presentation to its member governments in 2008.