ESA Seeks To Speed Up Emergency Response

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Prospective users of European space systems for civil security and defense purposes have said their top priorities are quicker response to emergencies and more assets under European, as opposed to U.S. or other foreign, control, the European Space Agency (ESA) has concluded.

The 18-nation ESA, with the encouragement of the 27-nation European Union’s executive commission, is gradually broadening its mandate to include dual-use space systems and even purely military programs so long as they are “non-aggressive” and thus do not violate the agency’s charter.

As a result, the agency is investigating a suite of telecommunications, navigation and Earth observation missions that would serve both civil and military purposes.

Speaking to reporters March 25, Giuseppe Morsillo, head of the ESA director-general’s policy office, said ensuring quick delivery of time-sensitive data, such as satellite imagery of a natural disaster area, is emerging as a key driver of civil-security programs in Europe.

ESA is developing a data-relay service as part of a partnership with a future private-sector operator that would ensure quick delivery of imagery in Europe. The agency is placing laser data-relay terminals on two of its future Earth observation satellites, and similar gear will be on the data-relay satellites in geostationary orbit.

Morsillo has said that in the first few days after January’s earthquake in Haiti, less than a third of the satellite imagery available for Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security service was from European satellites.

ESA and the European Defense Agency together are gathering requirements from civil and military users, respectively, for a Space Situational Awareness program that will use ground- and eventually space-based assets to track what is in orbit.

Morsillo said the defense agency is expected to produce the defense requirements by April, after which European governments will be asked to create policy on how data from the future space surveillance network will be handled, and what kind of agency — government-only or a partnership with industry — should operate the system.

Morsillo said a meeting of European Union and European Space Agencies in November, as part of a Space Council, could be a venue during which these issues could be discussed.

ESA in November 2008 approved a three-year Space Situational Awareness program with a budget of 49.8 million euros ($66.4 million). Germany has taken a 20 percent share of the program. In a sign of the changing times at ESA, the German Defense Ministry is investing alongside Germany’s space agency, DLR, in the project, providing 2 million euros’ of Germany’s 10 million-euro investment in the initial work.