BRUZ, France —

French defense authorities have begun preliminary studies of an operational electronics-intelligence satellite and also plan to search for other governments willing to partner on the project. The new program would be the culmination of France’s experience with the small demonstrator eavesdropping spacecraft it has been flying for more than a decade.

The program, tentatively called Ceres, is one of several military-space capabilities that France cannot afford to build on its own. Charles de Lauzun, deputy space director at the French arms procurement agency, DGA, said letters to prospective partners are to be sent in the coming weeks to measure the level of support in other European governments.

“The size of the Ceres program is probably too much for France to undertake by itself in today’s budget environment,” de Lauzun said here June 8 at the CELAR armaments-electronics center here, south of Rennes. “But we are getting to a point where our experience with in-flight demonstrators is becoming persuasive. Our priority now is an operational system.”

France launched small, single-satellite eavesdropping spacecraft demonstrators starting in the mid-1990s with the Cerise and Clementine small-satellites, launched respectively in 1995 and 1999. Taking the program a step further, four 120-kilogram Essaim electronics intelligence satellites were launched in 2004 into a 700-kilometer orbit on a three-year mission that began in June 2005.

DGA and the French space agency, CNES, have since agreed to co-finance four small Elisa satellites devoted to detecting and characterizing ground-based radar signals in 2010 – an example of France’s penchant for “dualizing” space-based research, de Lauzun said. The two agencies have budgeted a combined 115 million euros ($154 million) for the project. The satellites are under construction at Astrium Satellites, with electronics components provided by Thales Group.

Two years into Essaim operations, officials here said all four Essaim satellites continue function correctly, giving French defense planners information that occasionally can be put to operational use. Only three satellites are used; the fourth is an in-orbit spare.

“We localize and, where possible, identify telecommunications transmitters and radars to be able to anticipate crisis situations as well as to build up a data base for a future operational program,” one Essaim program manager said here at the Essaim programming facility. Once the tasking is determined, the orders are sent to Toulouse, France, for uplinking to the satellites.

The entire Essaim program was budgeted at 80 million euros – too small a budget to provide each satellite with the amount of fuel needed to maneuver in orbit over interesting targets, officials said. To further save money, the same antennas stationed here that receive Essaim data during each 10-minute overflight will be used for Elisa as well. Essaim makes four passes per day to deliver its data at downlink rates of 20 megabits per second.

Thierry Duquesne, director of CELAR, said during a June 8 briefing that about 10 CELAR personnel work full-time on Essaim. CELAR as a whole employs some 700 people and has an annual operating budget of between 7 million and 8 million euros. It also has teams that test French optical reconnaissance and military telecommunications satellites.

Each Essaim spacecraft carried just four kilograms of fuel when launched and each records a slightly different radio frequency. The satellites are programmed twice a week.

Officials said they have been able to accommodate at least partly for the lack of maneuverability by aiming the Essaim antennas at targets that are not directly below the satellites, but at an angle. “Some telecommunications transmitters are better viewed in this way,” one CELAR official said.

DGA and other French defense officials admitted that their series of eavesdropping demonstrators, which when Elisa is completed will have stretched over nearly 20 years, is by no means assured of being transformed into an operational effort with more-capable satellites.

A French Defense Ministry policy paper issued in February calls for a 50 percent increase in France’s military-space effort, to about 650 million euros per year from the current 433 million euros, starting in 2009.

Whether the new French government elected in May shares that view remains as uncertain as whether other European governments are willing to step up their military space programs.