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.