August 05, 2013
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.