PARIS — The successful launch in December of the French-led Helios 2B optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite has relieved pressure on French authorities to find an early solution to the problem of how to persuade other European nations to co-invest in a common ground network for future optical and radar reconnaissance spacecraft.
The multiple delays encountered by the six-nation MUSIS, or Multinational Space-based Imaging System, have become an embarrassment not only to France but to many of its MUSIS partners — Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain.
In interviews and public statements before and after the Helios 2B launch, defense officials from MUSIS nations said they agree that designing a common ground network before the next-generation reconnaissance satellites are contracted will save in system costs and complexity.
They also agreed that the Musis structure — each nation is free to build its own satellites and thereby retain the maximum national prestige and industrial-policy benefits — takes account of each nation’s reluctance in investing in common satellites, even with its closest allies.
Currently, France, Germany and Italy have their own satellite systems, and Spain has optical and radar satellites under construction.
MUSIS partners originally had hoped to agree on the common ground segment in time to have it ready for the next-generation reconnaissance satellites in 2014.
That date is now out of reach because a firm commitment on the MUSIS program has yet to be signed.
France was first in Europe to launch military observation satellites, and its Helios 2 system will be the first to be retired, meaning France faces the earliest deadlines to either go its own way on the next generation or seal a MUSIS deal.
French officials say that with the six-month delay of the launch of Helios 2B and the continued orbital health of Helios 2A, the 2014 date has been extended to 2016. They say that means a concrete MUSIS architecture and financial-contribution schedule can wait until late 2010 before being decided.
But even this extension is not certain to be met.
In a Dec. 3 speech to a space-security conference here, Laurent Collet-Billon, head of France’s arms procurement agency, DGA, said France cannot extend forever the time at which it needs to make design commitments for its post-Helios 2 system, tentatively named the Optical Space Component, or CSO.
“In the past 17 months we [have] fallen behind by 12 months in putting together the common ground segment,” Collet-Billon said. “All concerned need to understand the idea of a deadline. We remain determined to reach an agreement with our partners, but we are faced with precise dates to develop our [post-Helios CSO] program. It’s mathematics: We cannot spend time on endless protocols and amendments to the agreement.”
Collet-Billon said MUSIS negotiations will also be made more complicated if Germany moves forward with its own high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellite, named Hi-ROS. Up to now, Germany and France have had a mutual understanding that France would stick to optical systems while Germany restricts itself to radar.
“The cooperation we have between France and Germany, where we divide the responsibility for [satellite reconnaissance] capacity, seems logical,” Collet-Billon said. “But if each side decides to nibble on the other’s territory, we won’t get far.”
German Air Force Brig. Gen. Martin Schelleis, chief of air plans at the German Defense Ministry, sought to ease French concerns, saying Hi-ROS was not supported by Germany’s military but was an initiative of German industry. Hi-ROS studies are also being backed by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s civil space agency.
“Yes, there is an agreement between Germany and France on security under which France will work on optical systems and Germany on [synthetic aperture radar],” Schelleis said during the conference. “That agreement still holds, and we have made clear it will not change. Hi-ROS is definitely not a military project, and we don’t have any stake in it.”
A possible German encroachment onto France’s optical preserve is not the only issue facing MUSIS governments. Italy has its own Cosmo-Skymed radar satellite system, which partially duplicates what Germany’s five-satellite SAR-Lupe system provides.
Spain is financing development of a medium-resolution optical Earth observation satellite, called Ingenio, that MUSIS officials say could complement the high-resolution post-Helios CSO system. But Spain is also developing a radar observation satellite, called Paz.
Lt. Col. Juan Andres Toledano, who represents Spain’s arms procurement agency, DGAM, in the multinational body that manages the Helios system — Spain has a 7 percent share of the Helios 1A satellite, which is still operational, and a 2.5 percent share of Helios 2 — said there appears to be no room in MUSIS for the Paz capacity.
“For the future MUSIS system, France is providing very high and high resolution optical,” Toledano said Dec. 4. “Italy is providing very high and high resolution radar, and so is Germany. The only capability not present is wide-swath optical. This will be provided by Ingenio. As for Paz, it is not part of the MUSIS system for the moment.”