PARIS — The French and German defense ministries are upgrading their fledgling ground facilities designed to track satellites and other objects flying over European territory in preparation for a broader European effort whose management and organization have yet to be decided, French and German officials said.
The upgrades are occurring as two European government institutions — the 18-nation European Space Agency () and the European Defense Agency (EDA) — are positioning themselves to have a role in whatever European space situational awareness program emerges.
These activities are occurring in the context of a dialogue with the U.S. Air Force on possible future trans-Atlantic cooperation in space surveillance now that Europe appears ready to build its own system. Cooperation up to now has been a one-way information flow in which data from U.S. Air Force ground radars inform European government authorities of possible threats to European satellites from space debris.
For the moment, the only Europe-wide effort appears to be ESA’s three-year program, funded at just 50 million euros ($70 million), to explore technologies related to space weather and the tracking of near-Earth objects, including debris and satellites.
ESA governments are likely to review this program at a mid-2012 meeting of their government ministers, a conclave that will determine whether the preparatory effort will be followed by further development.
Erwin Duhamel of ESA’s office of security programs said ESA ministers at the 2012 meeting will have before them not just the result of ESA’s three-year program but also EDA specifications based on that agency’s poll of European defense authorities.
For now, the main space surveillance capabilities in Europe are the French military’s Graves bistatic radar, which sweeps portions of low Earth orbit to detect the presence of objects passing overhead; and Germany’s 32-meter-diameter Tracking and Imaging Radar, TIRA, owned by the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques, which has a smaller field of view but provides sharper images.
Graves and TIRA are occasionally used in tandem, with Graves spotting an object of interest, and then passing the information to TIRA managers to take a closer look.
German army Col. Carsten Breuer, in the strategy and policy branch of the German Defense Staff, said German authorities plan a “major refurbishment that will lead to major new capability” of TIRA as part of Germany’s new space situational awareness program.
That program began in 2009 as part of a three-year effort managed by the German military and has resulted in the creation of the German Space Situational Awareness Center. Olaf Holzhauer, the center’s director, said plans are that the center would grow in size, with personnel trained by French and U.S. authorities, between 2012 and 2019 before reaching operational capability in 2020.
Holzhauer said in a presentation to the Milspace 2011 conference in Paris that the center is overseen by military authorities but is viewed as “for all of Germany, not just the military.” He added that the German government views the subject of space situational awareness as an important element in Germany’s national sovereignty, which is why a specialized German facility is being built.
France’s Graves facility, built in 2004 by the French aerospace research institute, Onera, is viewed in France as having produced results that are near-operational in nature despite the fact that Graves was designed as experimental only. The facility, located near Dijon, is owned by France’s arms procurement agency, DGA.
Jacques Bouchard, one of Graves’ principal designers at Onera, said the facility is being upgraded following an investment of 3.3 million euros between September 2010 and October 2013. In a written response to Space News questions, Bouchard said the upgraded Graves facility would be able to broaden the section of sky it scans at a given moment, and make more-precise estimates of objects’ trajectories.
The upgrade also would enable Graves to better evaluate, without reference to other facilities’ data, the likelihood of a collision between two registered objects.
“The clearest performance difference will be in trajectory precision,” Bouchard said. “Thanks to an optimized radar observation, the errors in position that are made today will be considerably reduced.”
Graves was designed to observe objects up to 1,000 kilometers in altitude, meaning it can detect most Earth observation satellites. Graves’ capabilities were demonstrated several years after its inauguration when French authorities spotted satellites that were not on the list of orbiting satellites published by the U.S. Air Force. These were almost certainly U.S. classified satellites, DGA officials said at the time.
France is one of three nations — Canada and Australia are the others — that have signed agreements with the U.S. Air Force to cooperate on space situational awareness. U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, commander of the 14th Air Force at Air Force Space Command, said in an April 14 briefing to the National Space Symposium that the Air Force is working on a system of space situational awareness data exchanges with these nations.