RENNES, France —

Six European nations have begun initial work on coordinating their future space-based reconnaissance systems in ways that could run the gamut from today’s bilateral sharing of each government’s own capacity, to a much deeper collaboration that includes

co-owned satellite assets, according to French defense officials.

In briefings at the French armaments-electronics center, CELAR, here June 8, officials said concrete proposals on a future pan-European system are expected starting in September, when two competing contractor teams are expected to deliver system-architecture designs.

Both teams, led by Astrium Satellites and ThalesAlenia Space, have been

under contract to the French arms procurement agency, DGA, since January. The contract, and a related contract managed by the Italian defense procurement agency, Teledife, on future user interfaces follows a December agreement by France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Greece to coordinate early designs for space-based surveillance systems.

The work is called Musis, or Multinational Space-based Imaging System. With the recent launches of Italian and German radar reconnaissance satellites (see related story page 13), and plans in Spain for a dual-use optical observation system, French authorities said they are optimistic that the next generation of observation systems will feature much closer collaboration between the participating nations.

“Space-based reconnaissance in Europe is entering an era of rapid expansion with the new systems coming into service,” said Nicolas Hue, director of the French Helios optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite system

in orbit since the mid-1990s

and also Musis director at the French Defense Ministry. “What the nations have agreed to do is look at several possible scenarios for future cooperation.”

Military-space cooperation among European nations has been an up-and-down affair. Separate military telecommunications systems are in orbit or planned in France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany. The optical and radar reconnaissance problems similarly were designed by one nation for that nation’s use.

In the case of the French Helios system, other nations have been invited to join. Italy and Spain took, in total, a 21 percent stake in the Helios 1 program. Helios 1A, launched in 1995, continues to operate and Hue said current estimates are that it will remain in service until 2010

triple its contracted service life. The Helios-1B satellite, launched in 1999, failed in orbit in 2004.

Helios 2A, with an infrared sensor and a sharper optical imager, was launched in 2004. An identical Helios 2B is scheduled for launch in March 2009 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

France had trouble enlisting support from other European governments in Helios 2 at first. Spain, Belgium, Italy and, most recently, Greece agreed each to take a 2.5 percent stake in Helios 2, a cash investment that gives each of these nations a corresponding percentage of Helios 2 imagery.

In addition, France struck agreements with Italy and Germany on data-sharing that will give France access to the French and German radar satellites. With these two arrangements added into the Helios partnership, a total of 25 percent of Helios 2 imagery will be distributed outside of France.

Each nation has its own Helios 2 programming center and neither France nor any other Helios partner need be informed as to the area of interest ordered as the partners program the satellite each day. Each nation has its own Helios 2 code for classified access to the satellite.

France and the other Helios 2 partners have not reached an agreement with the 27-nation European Union on permitting the European Union Satellite Center, located in Torrejon, Spain, access to Helios imagery. It is an example of the difficulties in sharing imagery and one reason why European government officials often say that satellite reconnaissance imagery is not shared, but exchanged.

The Torrejon center uses its limited budget to purchase commercial satellite imagery in Europe, the United States, India and elsewhere to assemble crisis-management studies for European governments – including the Helios 2 partners.