Lower-cost Satellite Imagery Benefits Cash-Strapped European Data Center

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The European Union Satellite Centre (EUSC), which was created in 1992 and became a formal body of the 27-nation European Union in 2002, has been surviving on a shoestring staff and budget and is able to support only one-third of the EU military and peacekeeping force deployments, but has maintained its image-buying power thanks to a drop in prices of high-resolution satellite imagery, an EUSC official said.

EUSC Operations Support Manager Jean-Charles Poletti said he expects downward pressure on satellite-image prices to continue as new commercial spacecraft are launched in Europe and elsewhere.

With a staff of 85 full-time employees and 14 temporary positions and an annual budget around 12.2 million euros ($16.5 million), the EUSC is able to spend no more than 2 million euros per year purchasing satellite imagery. EUSC has on staff some 25 image analysts. The facility is based outside Madrid, Spain.

With the goal of furthering the 27-nation European Union’s common foreign and security policy, the EUSC responds to requests for satellite-aided analyses of areas to Europe’s defense and security interests.

As of early April, the European Union had civil and military missions in 13 locales worldwide, mainly in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. One-third of these missions have benefited from EUSC analyses, Poletti said.

In addition to purchasing satellite imagery, the center is working on gaining conditional access to European military satellites. It already has secured agreements with France for access to the Helios optical reconnaissance system. An agreement with Italy for occasional access to the more-precise, military-only observing mode of the Cosmo-SkyMed radar constellation has been reached, with a final agreement “close to signature,” Poletti said.

Germany’s SAR-Lupe radar satellites carry a higher level of classification than either Helios or Cosmo-SkyMed under German law, but Poletti said a memorandum of understanding should be concluded soon.

Negotiations are planned on the use of France’s two dual-use Pleiades optical satellites, to be launched separately in the next year, he said. Pleiades’ classification level has yet to be decided.

The EUSC used to be focused on the highest possible ground resolution when selecting what satellite images to buy, but Poletti said the latest generation of commercially available satellites, several of which are able to detect images of less than 1 meter in diameter, is adequate for the center’s purposes.

“These satellites’ resolution is sufficient for us to fulfill our mission,” Poletti said. “We are using more and more radar as well, and for radar, polarization issues and the different scanning modes are even more important to use than resolution. Revisit time is also a crucial parameter.”