ESA Space Surveillance Initiative Hinges on November Summit

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PARIS — A long-planned European program to develop a space surveillance system for civil and military purposes is moving forward with construction of two prototype radars ahead of a mid-November meeting that will determine whether the work continues or stops in its tracks.

The European Space Agency (ESA) on Oct. 15 announced the installation of an experimental radar in Spain, with validation testing to begin in November. The radar, in development for 18 months, was built under a contract valued at 4.7 million euros ($6.1 million) with Indra Espacio S.A. of Spain.

The radar is a monostatic design, meaning its transmitter and receiver are co-located. The receiver was built by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for High-Energy Physics and Radar Techniques under contract to Indra Espacio. The institute operates Germany’s Tira Tracking and Imaging Radar space-surveillance facility, located near Bonn. Tira features a 34-meter-diameter L-band tracking antenna.

The installation of the Spanish radar came one month after ESA’s 4 million euro contract with France’s Onera aerospace-research institute and five industrial partners in France, Spain and Switzerland to design and build a bistatic test radar.

The transmitter will be located 100 kilometers west of Paris, in Crucey-Villages, with the receiver to be installed about 90 kilometers to the east, in Palaiseau, France.

France’s Graves space-surveillance facility, in operation since 2005, was designed in part by Onera and also uses a bistatic design, with the transmitter and receiver located some 400 kilometers apart.

ESA governments agreed to an initial preparatory effort in space situational awareness in November 2008 with a pared-down budget of 55 million euros for three years. ESA originally had hoped for 300 million euros to begin full-scale development of an operational space surveillance network.

ESA said it has spent more than 30 million euros of the program’s budget on some two-dozen contracts with industry as part of what was intended to be a three-year program.

Since it began its effort, ESA has been coordinating with the European Defense Agency of Brussels so that a full-scale development program takes account of the operational needs of military customers for space surveillance. The program’s other goals include space weather monitoring and the study of potentially threatening near-Earth objects.

In parallel to this work, France has agreed to upgrade the Graves facility to improve the precision of its tracking of satellite trajectories.

The German Defense Staff has established the German Space Surveillance Center as part of Germany’s stated interest in establishing its own capability in collaboration with other nations.

It remains to be seen whether ESA governments, set to meet Nov. 20-21 in Caserta, Italy, to set multiyear program and budget priorities, will approve more funding for the space surveillance program or wait until the two experimental radars have proved themselves.

One ESA official said the program would be on the agenda at the ministerial meeting, but the funding level has yet to be determined.

Canada, an associate member of ESA, is also moving into the space-surveillance arena with the planned December launch of its Sapphire satellite. From a polar orbit of 750 kilometers in altitude, Sapphire is designed to image at least 360 objects per day in orbits of between 6,000 and 40,000 kilometers in altitude — a region that includes most navigation and communications satellites.

Canada and the United States in May signed an agreement on space surveillance cooperation under which Sapphire will be used as part of the U.S. Space Surveillance Network of ground radars that in 2010 was augmented by the Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite.

ESA has been talking to the U.S. Air Force about Europe’s plans and how they might complement what the U.S. network already does.

One issue hobbling ESA’s program is how ESA, a civil organization that, while evolving, is still ill at ease with military programs, could coordinate an effort that includes all-military assets like France’s Graves facility.