The European Union is keen to set up its own network of space surveillance assets that could track spy satellites and near-Earth objects, help satellite operators avoid orbital-debris collisions and protect critical infrastructure when spent spacecraft or other objects enter Earth's atmosphere.
According to current estimates, 16,000 objects larger than 10 cm (4 in.) are orbiting the planet, and 300,000-600,000 larger than 1 cm are estimated but not cataloged, and the number could reach 1 million by 2020. According to the European Commission (EC)—the executive arm of the EU—annual losses due to collision and collision-avoidance maneuvers total €140 million ($185 million), a figure expected to grow by 50% over the next decade as more satellites are launched into space.
Under a July proposal to the European Parliament, Council and other EU bodies, the EC would help EU nations fund development of a space surveillance and tracking (SST) network capable of scanning the skies over Europe to identify spy satellites or avert collisions with orbital debris.
Options outlined in the proposal could cost €10-120 million a year to establish and operate such a network based on existing French and German radars with the aim of protecting the EC's current and future space infrastructure, notably the Galileo satellite navigation constellation and Copernicus Earth-observation system.
The funding could help Paris and Berlin as they upgrade existing ground-based SST networks, though neither has waited for European support. The two have collaborated bilaterally since 2006 to effect the only operational SST system in Europe using the French Graves bistatic radar, a handful of French air force and navy fixed and mobile tracking antennas, and Germany's TIRA, a tracking and imaging radar more powerful and precise than Graves but which can follow only one object in space at a time.
Graves was developed as a demonstrator by the French aerospace laboratory Onera in the 1990s, and entered operations when it was purchased by the French air force in 2005. A bistatic radar, Graves's emitters are located in Broyes le Pesmes in eastern France, while the receiver is situated on the Plateau d'Albion in southern France.
Lt. Col. Bernard Muller, head of the Space Surveillance Div. within the French air force's Air Defense and Operations Command (CDAOA), says Graves is able to detect objects orbiting the Earth with an inclination of 45-135 deg., representing 95% of all objects measuring 1 sq. meter (11 sq. ft.)or larger in low Earth orbit up to 1,000 km (620 mi.) altitude, including eavesdropping and observation satellites.
Although the U.S. Air Force shares data with allies from what is arguably the world's most sophisticated ground- and space-based surveillance network, Graves and TIRA give France and Germany the capability to maintain their own catalog of orbiting objects
“Graves is able to identify something of interest and TIRA then tells us what it might be,” Muller says.
Part of the French air force's Systeme de Commandement et de Conduite des Operations Aeriennesair (SCCOA)—which combines all the service's information and communications systems under a single procurement program—Graves is slated for a mid-life upgrade in 2015 that Muller says will improve its capacity for conducting broad sweeps of the skies over Europe.
As a supplement to Graves, France uses three air force Satam tracking antennas, as well as a shipborne radar on the French navy's Monge missile-tracking vessel, to allow precise extrapolation of the object trajectories, including those reentering Earth's orbit.
France is also investing in new capabilities, including a low-level technology demonstrator dubbed Oscegeane that uses spectroscopy to characterize objects in geostationary orbit. The project combines a telescope located in Nice with control and data analysis conducted by Muller's team in Paris. In the works for the past three years, he says it has reached a technology readiness level of 3-4.
Another demonstration project, Fedome (Federation de donnees issues de capteurs defense, scientifiques ou cooperants), began last fall to improve air force space-weather forecasting.
The CDAOA collects space solar weather data from a variety of sources for use in civil and military operations planning, including air force missions over Mali in support of Operation Serval. Fedome, which will be operational in November, aims to provide the air force with its own space-weather forecasting ability using a unique set of instruments to detect and analyze solar activity at radio wavelengths and providing alerts to avoid disruptions to GPS accuracy, AWACS recognized air picture and long-distance communications.
“With weapons such as the A2SM [L'armement air-sol modulaire], we need good precision,” Muller says, referring to the French air force INS/GPS/infrared-guided air-to-ground missile.
Muller says by fall 2014 the air force plans to co-locate control of all its space surveillance assets with the French air operations center (CNOR) in Lyon, France, where his staff of 20 disparate operators will grow to 30 at the consolidated space tracking center, dubbed Cosmos (Centre Operationnel de Surveillance Militaire des Objets Spatiaux). Ultimately, Muller says, France seeks to develop a Space Information System (SIS) that will provide an overall picture of the aerospace environment.
“We are now working on the definition and realization of SIS, which will be included in the SCCOA procurement system,” he says. Graves, air force Satam and naval radar, Fedome and Oscegeane will be combined under SIS, which he says will automate what is today a largely manual operation.
In the meantime, the German Space Situational Awareness Center (GSSAC) in Uedem, Germany, is working to formalize its relationship with the German Fraunhofer research institute, which owns and operates the TIRA radar.
Since its inception in 2009, the GSSAC has grown from a handful of military personnel to a civil-military operation staffed by more than 20. Col. Olaf Holzhauer, former GSSAC director who is now the senior officer for space situational awareness at the German Air Operations Command's new operations center, says the GSSAC is in an initial operational phase, with the goal of becoming fully operational by 2020. In the near term, he says the center aims to formalize its relationship with Fraunhofer to support continued cooperation with France, the U.S. and other nations.
“We are thinking to develop this cooperation into a service agreement between both entities, so that Fraunhofer would provide to us analysis of TIRA data on the space situation and we would give our assessment based on this information to our partners,” Holzhauer says.
Eventually, the Franco-German space surveillance collaboration would be expanded to form the nucleus of a European space situational awareness network, including space weather, near-Earth-object detection and the SST system proposed by the EC.
The European Space Agency (ESA) took a first stab at such an effort in recent years and was able to establish programs focused on space weather and near-Earth-object detection. But ESA failed to build consensus among its 20 member states to fund a dual-use SST network based on Graves, TIRA and other national assets used for both civil and military operations.
“You have to think about how this would be organized and who provides what products to whom, and then you get into the very sensitive questions of data policy and governance,” Holzhauer says. “But the idea is to be a starting point for a coordinated space situational awareness activity on the European level.”