PARIS — France and the United States on Feb. 8 signed a preliminary agreement on cooperation in space situational awareness that officials said should pave the way for future U.S.-European sharing of data as Europe develops its own space surveillance capability.

The agreement, signed in Washington by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and French Defense Minister Alain Juppe, for the moment is limited to a “statement of principles,” Gates said during a Feb. 8 press briefing on the agreement, which he said “will go a long way to addressing one of the key security challenges of the 21st century.”

“A growing number of nations are using space for an expanding variety of purposes — manned spacecraft, satellites, the international space station and more — increasing the odds of accidental collision,” Gates said. “Space situational agreements like this one help us mitigate these and other risks by sharing information and pooling our varied capabilities. This arrangement will foster safety and reduce the chances of mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust.”

Juppe said a bilateral accord concerning “the most strategic domains, like space,” illustrates the level of confidence the two nations have in each other.

“Signing such an agreement between the U.S.A. and another NATO country is a first,” Juppe told reporters. “Through all our space capabilities, France is a reliable partner. In our mutual interest, our two countries have decided to reinforce their defense-space cooperation to safeguard access to, and use of, space for peaceful purposes.”

A French defense ministry official told journalists at a Feb. 10 briefing that the agreement concerned principally France’s GRAVES radar, a low-cost system that French officials say was designed as a technology demonstrator but has proved operationally useful for identifying large objects in low Earth orbit up to around 1,000 kilometers in altitude. The agreement foresees cooperation between U.S. and French space surveillance assets that is more systematic than it has been up to now, the official said.

GRAVES, the French acronym for large-scale system adapted for space surveillance, has been used in tandem with Germany’s Tracking and Imaging Radar (TIRA), operated by the German Establishment for Applied Sciences (FGAN) near Bonn. GRAVES will perform a sweep of the sky and note an object of interest without being able to identify it. French officials will pass on their observations to FGAN, which can aim TIRA to the area of interest on the object’s next pass over European territory.

GRAVES was built by France’s ONERA aerospace research organization for 30 million euros ($56 million) and is operated and maintained for about 1 million euros per year.

While GRAVES has performed well beyond its intended limits, the U.S.-French, and U.S.-European, cooperation in space surveillance remains mainly a one-way street, with the U.S. Space Surveillance Network of radars picking up possible “conjunction events,” or objects on a collision course, and informing European authorities when an active European satellite is threatened.

The European Parliament and the European Space Agency (ESA) both have expressed support for a more sophisticated system that would harness what is available in France, Germany and elsewhere and add to it with more radars. ESA’s current space situational awareness program was budgeted for a three-year period that ends this year. In 2012, ESA hopes to attempt again to persuade its governments to fund a more elaborate system costing several hundred million euros.

ESA officials have said that while the initial U.S. reaction to Europe’s plans was reserved, Washington has more recently come to embrace the European space situational awareness program as a possible force multiplier that can fill gaps in the U.S. effort.

The U.S. and European sides may have different ideas on what portion of the data harvested from their space surveillance systems will be made public. French officials in the past have noted with irritation that the U.S. data, published as what are known as two-line elements, have included the locations of France’s Helios optical reconnaissance satellites while keeping secret the whereabouts of U.S. classified systems.

The Gates-Juppe agreement came a week after the U.S. Defense Department announced contracts to two teams competing to build the Space Fence, which will include S-band radars located around the world to expand the U.S. ability to see objects in space from the Southern Hemisphere.

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems each won 18-month, $107 million contracts to refine their Space Fence proposals. A decision on the prime contractor for the full Space Fence development is expected in 2012 following an open competition.

The Space Fence will provide broader coverage, and an ability to see smaller objects, than the current VHF radars located along the 33rd parallel in the continental U.S.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.