French launch missile warning sats

February 15, 2009

The French government on Thursday launched two satellites designed to serve as demonstrators for an eventual ballistic missile launch warning system.

The Spirale spacecraft also should provide France first-hand infrared data on missile plume IR signatures. Up to now, the Europeans have had to rely on U.S. data. That makes Spirale an important step not just for the French, but for Europe at large if it ever wants to become independent from U.S. for missile warning, a German military official points out.

An actual DSP/SBIRS-like constellation in Europe is still years off, and there are big questions whether the funding or cross-border interest is really there. But the French launch, on an Ariane 5 on Feb. 12, nevertheless marks and important step forward.

The spacecraft are to remain in operation until April. The IR detector is provided by Sofradir and Thales Alenia Space built the spacecraft. Astrium was charged with systems integration.

Thales says the spacecraft each are about 0.9 meter high and weeight 120 kg. “They will be positioned in an elliptical equatorial orbit to observe the earth’s atmosphere under a wide variety of conditions (mono or stereo mode, altitudes, bandwidths, local time, etc.). The telescope on the payload features advanced technologies, in particular a carbon-fiber reinforced silicon carbon (C/SiC) material known as Cesic, a ceramic matrix composite that offers the best combination of low weight and high performance.”

spirale-copyright-astrium[credit: Astrium]

Brazil, Turks eye surveillance sats

January 2, 2009

The number of countries in the overhead intelligence collection business is rapidly expanding.

Turkey has been interested in that capability for some time and has now named Telespazio to supply the electro-optical GokTurk system. It’s a turn-key contract, including launch. The 2 metric ton satellite should be launched in 2011 on a yet-to-be-named rocket. The system is supposed to be operational in 2012.

The exact system performance isn’t known, but Turkey wanted at least 0.8 meter resolution, with half-meter performance desired. In multi-spectral mode, resolution should be around 3.2 meters.

Meanwhile, Brazil also is ramping up its efforts. As part of a massive defense and aerospace agreement signed in December between Brazil and France, the French space agency, CNES, will provide assistance to a range of projects. One of the categories where the French are expected to assist is in the field of earth observation.

SAR-Lupe video

December 28, 2008

The German defense ministry a while back posted an interesting video of how it will be using the SAR-Lupe radar satellite system.

I’ve been meaning to post on this for some time, but like most satellite programs, this post has been running somewhat behind schedule. You can access the video here.

The video narration is only in German, but even if you can’t follow the words, the video still sheds a bit more light on the SAR-Lupe system.

The video doesn’t answer the biggest SAR-Lupe question, though. What’s the resolution? It only says the system can deliver better than 1 meter resolution.

Turn time to generate an image upon request is less than 24 hours.

Pentagon Eyes Commerical Space-Based SAR Acquisition

November 10, 2008


The Pentagon has given industry a few more days to respond to a request for information on the provision of space-based synthetic aperture radar imagery.The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is managing the effort; so far it’s only a request for information. Nevertheless, folks like those behind the German SAR-Lupe or Italian Cosmo-SkyMed are interested.

With the Pentagon’s efforts to field a space-based SAR system in turmoil, going commercial seems a quicker solution. The resolution may not be what the intelligence community wants, but for the military’s day-to-day collection needs it may just be the thing. NGA already buys electro-optical imagery from commercial vendors.

What’s more, offloading the mundane task could make the job easier for the National Reconnaissance Office to develop a intel-dedicated system.

Here’s some of what NGA is asking for:

• Small area (<10 km wide) and/or large area (>10 km) imagery for reconnaissance, mapping, and charting;

• Structure location and identification;

• Area feature and surface type identification;

• Area elevation derivation;

• Trail and path detection;

• Moving target identification;

• Disaster assessment and mitigation for natural disasters such as hurricane, flooding, forest fire, earthquake and land movement or manmade disasters such as structure collapses;

• Wilderness, aviation and nautical search and recovery;

• Sea ice detection and tracking;

• Weather, wind and wave height detection for naval operations;

• Oil Spill detection;

• Bathymetry and obstacle identification in the littoral domain; and

• Maritime Surveillance

• Capability to provide products collected at high (~50 to 60°), mid, or low (~15 to 20°) incidence angles to support specific application needs.



L’Echelon Advances

October 30, 2008

France is looking to round out its space-based intelligence collection capability. Having already fielded the Helios-2 imaging satellites and receiving radar-satellite data through a barter agreement with Germany and Italy, signals intelligence is next on the agenda.

Several technology projects have been well underway for a space-based signals intelligence system for some time, and now Paris has published more concrete plans for an operational system.

Under the newly unveiled multi-year spending law, the French government wants to have the system become operational in 2016. Called, Ceres, the system is open to European partners. In fact, France has been eager to get support from others, including Germany, for well over a year — so far with little success.

Ceres would build on the Essaim demonstrator, which was launched in December 2004, and will remain operational until next year. Essaim already has created enough interest in France to support funding of a follow-on development activity, Elisa. Elisa actually consists of payloads carried on four micro-satellites.

That sytem would even provide a limited operational capacity once it is orbited in 2010. The mini-constellation would be in orbit for three years.

BND Questions Space-Based Intel

October 26, 2008

Germany’s main floreign intelligence service is apparently raising questions about the value of intelligence provided by satellites in an era when the primary threat is from terrorism.

I was recently visiting a military conference in Germany where a senior staff officer in the country’s general staff raised the issue. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) has apparently articulated the concern during a recent discussion in Berlin.

Obviously the BND isn’t thefirst group to question the value of satellite intelligence at a time when good humint is needed to penetrate terrorist groups. But what makes it an interesting comment is that it comes after years of effort by the German military to field the SAR-Lupe space-based radar system. The military is apparently quite happy with the results delivered by the five-satellite system, which has been operational a few months, but is the intelligence service less so?

The comment also raises some interesting questions about Germany’s future position on funding space-based surveillance systems. France is trying to get other European countries interested in funding a space-based electronic-intelligence capability. The message from Germany has been mixed. A senior air force official told me several months ago the military wasn’t interested, citing a lack of funding and a focus on airborne signals intelligence (Germany is buying the EuroHawk, a derivative of the U.S. Global Hawk unmanned aircraft fitted with an EADS sigint package).

It also raises questions about Germany’s role in Musis. That’s another long-term effort to get Europe to work together on a future generation of earth observation satellites to replace the current generation of French Helios-2 electro-optical spacecraft, the Italian Cosmo-SkyMed radar system, and SAR-Lupe. 

So far, German companies doesn’t seem too worried. OHB Technology and EADS Astrium are busy arguing over what a future German early warning satellite system should look like, and they seem not too worried about whether the country’s commitment to military space investments may be questioned by the intelligence community. Perhaps the two companies are focused on the right issue, though. Although right now,there’s no early warning satellite program, a Luftwaffe officer tells me that could change, particularly if coupled with the country’s interest in a space-surveillance system.