European governments are showing increased interest in sharpening their space-surveillance capacity by linking existing ground radars and optical telescopes into a network to reduce their current near-total dependence on the United States, government and industry officials said.
These officials said that given the difficulty of rounding up sufficient resources for a dedicated space-surveillance network, a more likely scenario is linking independent systems operating or in development in Germany, Britain, France, Spain and elsewhere.
A recent report to the commission of the 25-nation European Union said stitching together a single network from existing facilities would cost about 300 million euros ($392 million), with annual operating costs of perhaps 70 million euros.
Officials said securing funding for such a network could be facilitated by selling it as a dual-use system that would track orbital debris and monitor which satellites are passing over European territory. This would make it a more attractive candidate for funding under the European Commission’s recently approved program for space and security research. The report, submitted in March to the European Commission and approved by all EU member nations, makes the case for such a program.
Europe currently depends on the U.S. Space Command for information about orbital debris, and government authorities reviewing the data have expressed concern that this dependence will leave them in the dark about the increasing number of classified orbital assets.
“Even with our limited means we have seen things up there that the U.S. apparently doesn’t want us to see,” said French Air Force Col. Yves Blin, head of the space office at the French Joint Military Staff. “It’s not just the big Keyhole [optical reconnaissance] satellites. It’s other things as well. The point is we need to understand what’s going on over our heads.”
Luca Del Monte, security policy officer at the European Space Agency , said the agency is considering how best to erect a kind of “space fence” that would capture, in images, all objects flying over Europe.
“We fully support the need for this,” Del Monte said here April 27 during the “Military Space: Questions in Europe” conference organized by the French Aeronautical and Astronautic Federation . “The question is: How do we implement it? Ground-based sensors could get 96 or 97 percent of the catalog of space objects by improving our existing radars and upgrading them. For the remaining 3 percent, maybe you need a space-based sensor.”
Several officials said backers of a space-surveillance system will need to finesse the likely criticism that such a network is a backdoor way of building a space-based missile-defense system, which the EU member nations are not ready to support.
Ralf Klaedtke of EADS Space Transportation in Germany, said Europe’s current ground-based observation systems are capable of monitoring space only for brief moments. He said this is sufficient for tracking large, passive objects in low-Earth orbit, but of little use in following what is happening in the higher geostationary orbit, or in monitoring any vehicle that maneuvers.
“Geostationary orbit is where you find the sensitive communications satellites and other ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] capabilities,” Klaedtke said. “If there is some anti-satellite weapon in space, or if arms proliferation is occurring in space, you want to know.”
Klaedtke said that in addition to assembling the French land-based Graves and shipborne Monge systems together with the German FGAN Tracking and Imaging Radar and other existing European sensors, the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) could be fitted with a camera for space-based surveillance.
The ATV is an unmanned space tug designed to carry supplies to the international space station every 18 months or so. Once unloaded, it is separated from the station and then destroyed upon atmospheric re-entry. Instead of being immediately disposed of , Klaedtke said, the ATV could be fitted with an imager and kept in low-Earth orbit for up to two years to track space objects and debris.