EU Commission Proposes Space Surveillance Service

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PARIS — The European Commission on Feb. 28 called for a European space situational awareness program using ground-based radars and telescopes already operated by individual European Union (EU) nations.

The commission said tracking objects in space to avoid eventual collisions with European satellites could save at least 210 million euros ($275 million) in annual charges including the cost of collision-avoidance maneuvers conducted by satellite operators.

The commission’s proposal, made as part of a broader look at how the EU conducts space policy, comes just weeks after the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) shelved a large part of its own space situational awareness program because of a lack of support by key member nations.

According to European government officials, the ESA effort ran into issues relating to a civil agency seeking to manage what, in some nations at least, are military installations. This is notably the case in France, whose Graves bistatic radar is Europe’s most sophisticated space-scanning asset, and is owned by the French Defense Ministry.

One French military official said that for Europe to acquire the same kind of capacity as that already deployed by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network — which the Canadian military’s just-launched Sapphire satellite will enhance — would take billions of euros.

“We don’t have the appetite for that kind of investment right now, and there is discomfort some military people have with letting a civil organization like ESA manage the effort,” this official said, explaining why ESA’s program secured so little support at a conference of ESA governments in November.

The commission’s new space policy seeks to make it easier for space-sector companies to secure financing and to apply for European Commission financing. In particular, the commission proposes to “ensure the rapid expansion of the scope of the EU project bond initiative to space infrastructures,” and to promote the use of so-called Structural Funds, a commission budget line, for space projects.

One idea the commission floats in its Feb. 28 statement is creating incentives among sellers of value-added Earth observation products by offering long-term contracts. The commission is already a regular buyer of European Earth observation data and is the owner of the Copernicus system of future Earth observation satellites.

The commission said that, unlike the space industries of Europe’s competitors, Europe’s space sector generates more than half its annual revenue from commercial contracts. The military space sector in Europe has always been small and in recent years has not been growing. The result is that it is the commercial sector that provides technology input for Europe’s military space programs, and not vice versa.

The commission also proposes to take a more active role in preparing for the quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conferences, which are held under United Nations auspices to allocate wireless spectrum.

In what could be an echo of U.S. satellite broadband service providers, the commission suggests that many local administrations in Europe have little idea of what a space-based solution could provide in terms of cost and performance.