The lingering economic downturn and continued belt-tightening in Europe are not keeping governments here from all but scrapping the idea of collective investment in space-based reconnaissance.
Instead, Europe's largest space-faring nations—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—are each independently investing in optical and radar systems that add up to roughly €2.5 billion ($3 billion) in future spending and will duplicate one another's capacity.
Italy appears to be the latest example of Europe's inability to come together in space-based surveillance. Although it faces enormous budget pressures, the government is progressing with the purchase of optical imaging satellites on two separate tracks.
The first involves a high-resolution Earth-observation satellite, Opsat, to be built in Israel as part of an offset arrangement in a government-to-government exchange for Tel Aviv's purchase ofjet trainer aircraft.
Aermacchi spokesman Stefano Somma says the jet trainer deal is in final negotiations and should be completed soon. He says the offset package is being worked out separately by the Italian and Israeli defense ministries.
In parallel, the Italian space agency ASI is starting design and development work on a separate high-resolution imaging satellite, dubbed the Optical System for Imaging and Surveillance (Opsis), which would feature Italian and German technology and operate alongside Italy's Cosmo-SkyMed radar constellation. ASI contracted with Compagnia Generale Per Lo Spazio, a subsidiary of OHB AG of Germany, for phase-B studies and to purchase a focal plane developed for the German Aerospace Center DLR. The 18-month predevelopment contract, valued at €13.5 million, is expected to lead to full development in 2015, says ASI President Enrico Saggese.
Opsis is projected to cost €100-150 million and weigh 700-800 kg (1,500-1,760 lb.). It is planned for launch in 2016 aboard Europe's Vega light launcher, in which Italy has a majority stake.
Germany was heavily criticized by the French government when Berlin considered its own high-resolution optical satellite, HiROS, in 2009-10. HiROS has been put on the back burner, but German industry has developed the optical instrument for South Korea's Arirang-3 satellite launched this year by a Japanese rocket.
Saggese says Germany may ultimately become a partner in Opsis, though the focal plane is planned as a commercial purchase. “We are not doing a bilateral agreement with the Germans,” Saggese says. “The focal plane is something you get off the shelf.”
Italy's decision to develop optical imaging satellites is due in part to its dissatisfaction about a 2001 accord with France on the exchange of optical and radar data, especially since NATO's operation in Libya last year. Under the Franco-Italian agreement, Italy is entitled to optical satellite imagery from the French military in exchange for Cosmo-SkyMed images. But Italian officials now say they need more optical data for civil and defense uses to complement their Cosmo-SkyMed radar capacity.
Saggese says the effect of the Libyan operation should not be overstated and that no single event has led Italy to go it alone on optical surveillance. He notes that Italy solicited bids from France for Opsis before deciding that the all-Italian satellite was less expensive. The satellite is funded almost entirely by the Italian science and universities ministry, responsible for Italy's space policy. Though it has drawn little support from the defense minister, Saggese held out the potential for participation at a later stage in the program.
But Saggese says Italy's interest in optical imaging is founded on a desire for in-orbit capacity to compare radar imagery from Cosmo-SkyMed and high-resolution optical imagery from Opsis with data from Italy's planned hyperspectral satellite, Prisma, which it is developing with Israel.
“In order to have real data fusion, you should have the optical sensor in the same orbit as the radar,” Saggese told reporters on the sidelines of the air show here. “If you put the information together at the same time, you get a better understanding.”
Italy is also counting on a joint effort with Argentina and Belgium to develop two Saocom L-band satellites that could complement the X-band Cosmo-SkyMed, Saggese says. Italy would also make use of additional data from the C-band radar payload to be launched by Europe's Sentinel-1 Earth-observation satellite in 2013.
“My dream is to get all possible types of data and let companies develop applications to extract the information,” Saggese says.
If Italy goes ahead with Opsis, however, Europe's space-based reconnaissance picture will look increasingly congested, costly and largely redundant.
Although France had been hoping its Helios military reconnaissance and Pleiades dual-use satellite systems would form the core of Europe's space-based optical surveillance system, Paris has already contracted Astrium to build a pair of successors to Helios, dubbed the Optical Space Component (CSO). The contract, signed in December 2010, is valued at €795 million. The first CSO is slated to launch in late 2016.
Germany operates its five-satellite SAR-Lupe constellation and has begun studies of a second-generation system for its military forces. The German government also invests in a civil radar satellite system comprised of two spacecraft, TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, and has agreed to make a further investment in a TanDEM-X successor.
Spain, which has also been a minority shareholder in France's Helios system for data rights, has determined it needs more, as well. Madrid is building its own optical and radar satellites for civil and defense use.
In addition to the Israeli Opsat satellite, Italy is moving forward on a second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed constellation that Saggese says will cost €500-600 million.
Having failed to coordinate their space-based surveillance satellite infrastructure, European governments had hoped to create a ground infrastructure capable of accessing different satellites under a program known as the Multi-national Space Based Imaging System for Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Observation (Musis).
Musis has been dead in the water for some time, and among the 12 European nations that are members of the Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation, only France and Italy have committed funds to development.