Germany Eyes High-Resolution Optical Imaging Satellites

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BERLIN — The German government is looking for commercial or government partners to develop a high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite as part of Germany’s strategy of complementing its current radar observation satellites, German Aerospace Center (DLR) officials said.

In interviews here during the ILA 2010 air show, DLR officials said Germany no longer feels bound by a tacit agreement with France that Germany would stick to radar satellites and leave optical imagery to France.

“I have heard about this supposed accord for some time and so far as I can tell it never really existed, at least not in any formal sense,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Reiter, a member of the DLR executive board. “And the fact is you see France working on radar satellites through Thales Alenia Space.”

DLR and Astrium GmbH of Ottobrunn have co-financed work on an optical imager for South Korea’s Kompsat-3 satellite, scheduled for launch in 2011. The Kompsat-3 imager is designed to provide a ground resolution as sharp as 70 centimeters, meaning it can distinguish objects or features of that size or larger.

Using this work as a springboard, DLR and German industry have been studying a system called Hi-ROS, or High-Resolution Optical Satellite, to give Germany an in-house ability to fuse optical imagery and radar data from the TerraSAR-X satellite, which is already in orbit, and the TanDem-X satellite scheduled for launch later this month.

Reiter said June 8 that for the moment, DLR is limiting its Hi-ROS work to refining the imager’s focal plane for what is envisioned as a satellite with a ground resolution of 50 centimeters.

French government officials, and in particular officials with the French arms procurement agency, DGA, have expressed reservations about the Hi-ROS system, saying a pan-European system will never get anywhere if each nation insists on developing technologies already in service elsewhere.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, DLR’s executive chairman, said the Hi-ROS system would not be part of the planned European Musis system of military observation satellites. For Musis, Woerner said, Germany will remain focused on its SAR-Lupe radar constellation and follow-on systems dedicated to military use.

In a June 8 interview, Woerner agreed with Reiter that there is no French-German agreement that would prevent Germany from developing its own space-based optical Earth observation system.

Hi-ROS, Woerner said, would be for civil and commercial customers.

Like Reiter, Woerner made reference to Thales Alenia Space’s radar development. Thales Alenia Space was created by the merger of the space businesses of Thales Group of France and Finmeccanica of Italy. It is Thales Alenia Space Italy that is providing the radar imager for South Korea’s Kompsat-5 satellite, scheduled for launch in 2010 or 2011.