Maritime surveillance may be the European Commission’s next big investment in space-based applications after the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES, project, European Commission officials said.

The commission is already sponsoring pilot projects to use satellite data to identify vessels suspected of illegal fishing and is reviewing possible investment in a space-based Automatic Identification System (AIS) to provide a broad picture of maritime traffic in and around European waters, they said.

So far, no large-scale program has been proposed. Following the problems in creating the Galileo system, some commission officials are wary of satellite programs, according to Laurent Muschel, deputy head of cabinet of European Commission Vice President Jacques Barrot.

“There is some reluctance in some ministries [among European Union member governments] to go to satellites,” Muschel said.

On a more practical level, he said, satellite systems have trouble delivering their observation data quickly enough to maritime authorities to be of operational use. “A border guard needs information in 10-15 minutes,” he said, adding that work is under way to reduce the time from when an image is captured and its delivery to border authorities.

European Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner Joe Borg said space-based AIS, which uses signals already emitted by commercial maritime vessels on their identity, cargo, destination and speed, appears to offer a low-cost way of monitoring traffic. “Space technology will be pivotal for integration of maritime surveillance in the European Union,” Borg said Oct. 16.

Because international maritime regulations require that AIS terminals be placed on all ships weighing 300,000 kilograms or more, a space-based AIS system has a relatively low capital cost, he said. Orbcomm in the United States and Com Dev in Canada, both of which have AIS satellites in orbit, are moving ahead with commercial satellite-based AIS systems based on similar cost assumptions.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also has established pilot AIS projects and recently launched two experimental AIS receivers to the international space station.

A payload called LuxAIS, was delivered in September to the international space station by Japan’s HTV cargo carrier. LuxAIS is scheduled to be activated aboard the space station in 2010. It was built under an ESA contract to test space-based AIS technologies as part of an ESA program called ColAIS, or Columbus AIS. Columbus is the name of Europe’s science laboratory that is part of the space station.

The same ColAIS program has helped finance development of a similar AIS receiver by Kongsberg Seatex, with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, or FFI, serving as project prime contractor. The Norwegian receiver arrived at the space station with LuxAIS.

Meanwhile, Luxspace of Luxembourg in September launched its 8-kilogram AIS Pathfinder 2 satellite as a piggyback payload aboard an Indian PLSV rocket, said Jochen Harms, the company’s chief executive. It is the company’s first satellite.