Europe will make its space-surveillance debut when the Helios satellite is launched in 1995

Tim Furniss/LONDON

The French Matra Marconi Space (MMS) Helios 1A satellite, to be launched by an Ariane 4 before the end of April, will provide Europe with the world's fourth military-surveillance capability, after the USA, the former Soviet Union and China.

The Helios - based on the French civilian Spot 4 remote-sensing satellite - will return 1m-resolution multi-spectral images from its 99¡-inclination, Sun-synchronous, 850km-altitude circular orbit.

The 2,750kg Helios " the first co-operative answer to European needs for an Earth-observation system dedicated to defence and is an excellent precedent on which to base greater co-operation on future programmes", MMS says. The Helios 1B is scheduled to be launched in 1996-7.

The satellite will be making Europe's first tentative steps into the uncertain future of European space surveillance. Plans for future European military spacecraft are disjointed and confusing, with many countries studying potential projects, while European bodies such as the Western European Union (WEU) are attempting to forge ahead with co-ordinated programmes.

The Helios is controversial, too, since some European countries - including the UK - question the need for a European spy satellite, when intelligence data is already provided by the USA. Others, however, maintain that an autonomous capability is essential. France and Germany are now fully committed to proceeding with a comprehensive military-surveillance satellite system.

US intelligence data are not comprehensive and their distribution cannot be guaranteed, because the US Government can be very choosy about what it releases. US space surveillance was also designed for a monolithic threat - the former Soviet Union - rather than widely spread, localised, targets.

The USA is one of the biggest customers of the highly flexible French Spot civilian remote-sensing satellite system, which provides images only down to 10m resolution. The Spot was particularly busy during the 1991 Gulf War.

Images of the same resolution as those of the Helios, however, are expected to be commercially available to Europe by 1997 from satellites such as that being built by Lockheed Space Imaging Systems. Indeed, images down to 2m resolution are already available on the commercial market - from former Russian military spy satellites.

Commercial marketing pressures to provide 1m-class images could also force the Spot's French operator to consider a Helios-class spacecraft to counter competitive systems. The Helios control centre is co-located with the Spot's at Toulouse.

A follow-on Helios 2 satellite system is already planned and this would be based on the next-generation Spot 5. The Helios 2 spacecraft will have a 500mm-resolution capability.

The Helios 1 will be launched with a French piggyback satellite, the Cerise, which is built by the UK's Surrey Satellite Technology and equipped with an electronic-intelligence (ELINT) payload to evaluate technologies which may be applied to a later, European, Zenon ELINT spacecraft. This was originally proposed as a national project by France, but cancelled after budget cuts. A later ELINT technology payload, the Clementine, may be flown on the Helios 1B. Spain is also planning a small ELINT satellite.



What happens after the Helios is not certain. European military-communications satellites and payloads are already being operated - including the UK's Skynet 4 satellites and military-communications payloads on board civilian communications satellites, such as France's Syracuse on the Telecom 2s, and a military payload on Spain's Hispasat. NATO also operates two NATO 4 communications satellites.

The UK (the former BAe Space Systems, now part of MMS) is building the Skynet follow-on 4D and 4E spacecraft and is discussing with France a joint Anglo-French communications satellite, based on the next-generation Skynet 5. Italy's Sicral military-communications satellite is now doubtful.

Spain and Italy - with 7% and 14% shares in the Helios 1, respectively - have pulled out of the follow-on Helios 2 programme, while Germany has proposed joining it, with a contribution of $35 million and a 50% role in the shelved French Osiris radar-surveillance spacecraft, which has been. As the role of the Helios 2 becomes clearer, Spain and Italy could re-evaluate their decisions.

France and Germany aim to take the lead in whatever European systems evolve. Daimler-Benz Aerospace is the lead contractor for the European Space Agency's (ESA) remote-sensing radar satellites, the ERS 1 and 2, on which the Osiris technology is likely to be based.

The Osiris gives the UK-end of MMS, based at Portsmouth, Hampshire, an excellent opportunity to play a key role, since it builds the the major instrument for the ERS, the synthetic-aperture radar, and is also building an advanced version to be flown on ESA's Envisat 1 environmental-monitoring polar platform.

The WEU assembly is strongly in favour of a European ballistic-missile-defence (BMD) system, which is being studied in the UK. A key element could be early-warning satellites to spot ballistic missiles, such as those which have been purchased from countries like North Korea, and launched from "rogue" countries such as Libya and Iraq.

The study involves pre-launch intelligence, in-flight detection, countermeasures and command and control. Early-warning satellites will be an important part of missile launch and in-flight detection and identification, together with air-, seaborne- and ground-based radars.

British Aerospace Dynamics and a UK industry team - which includes MMS - are conducting the BMD pre-feasibility study for the Ministry of Defence, a contract which was formalised in November 1994. It will be completed in the second quarter of 1996.



The only early-warning capability available to Europe is from US defence space programme spacecraft, which illustrated their worth by detecting Scud missile launches during the Gulf War. More about plans for future US military systems is likely to be known on 15 February, when a special report is delivered to the US Congress.

Former Strategic Defence Initiative projects, such as Brilliant Pebbles, have been shelved, but the Brilliant Eyes programme, to detect cold bodies in space - missiles in cruise phase after engine burn-out - still exists as a research programme in the successor Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

The WEU has also undertaken its own study - led by Daimler-Benz Aerospace - into the establishment of a European military space system consisting of surveillance and data-relay satellites. Such a system could cost over $14 billion, begin operations in 2005 and be completed by 2010. The WEU has been offered a quick solution - the purchase of a 1m-resolution, off-the-shelf, Russian spacecraft. Russia has also proposed that it develop with Europe a missile-defence and surveillance-satellite system.

The uncertainty of the future of European military spacecraft is illustrated by the attitude of many European governments to the WEU's satellite centre at Torrejon AB near Madrid, in Spain, which is waiting to know its fate.

The centre, established in April 1993, with 50 staff and a $46 million budget to 1995 for an experimental operational phase, provides military photo-interpretation of satellite images from Spot satellites. It uses images to develop interpretation methods, train image analysts and to respond to specific requirements for treaty verification and crisis and environmental monitoring.

US Landsat remote-sensing and European Space Agency ERS 1 radar images are being evaluated and Helios 1 images will also be supplied to the centre - provided that it still exists. Ministers of the WEU are due to decide in April whether they believe that Europe needs such an independent capability by initially extending the satellite centre's evaluation programme.

One factor may be the timing of the Helios launch, originally scheduled for March-April 1995, until the Ariane V70 failure on 2 December, causing inevitable delays and possible remanifesting. The satellite centre surely needs time to make use of Helios images before any decisions are made.



ESAT Insight

MMS has designed a theoretical, two-fleet, geostationary orbit-based early-warning satellite system. The European early-warning satellite, equipped with infra-red sensors and code-named ESAT at MMS, would detect the missile launch, identify the launch site, estimate the trajectory and the likely point of impact, triggering active and passive defence systems. The two ESATs could be launched by 2005. The satellites would cover an area from western north Africa to the Far East, covering the maximum 5,000km (2,700nm) range of missiles into Europe. The satellites would also be able to be manoeuvred east or west, to survey a new supposed crisis area.

The ESAT would weigh 2,500kg with a 600kg payload, consuming 400W of the 2kW capacity of the solar panels protruding from the three-axis-stabilised spacecraft. Instrument-pointing accuracy would have to be as good as, or better than, a science spacecraft.

The infra-red payload would probably be a Starer-type stereo-imaging focal-plane assembly, consisting of mosaic imaging cells. Observations would be made in the short-wave infra-red and middle-wave infra-red bands, where absorption of the atmosphere allows good detection. Optical detection of maximum flux/heat-emission radiation in thermal bands would be made against the Earth's background.

Each cell area within the mosaic imager would constantly sweep an area about 5km2 1.9 miles2) and a missile launch would be detected through instant comparison of the frame-by-frame images, highlighting changes in the area. Detection would be to 10s after reaching 10km altitude, or 6km if there is no cloud, to an accuracy of about 100m (30ft).

Missile identification would be possible by using a databank of information based on analysis of the test-flight exhaust emission, and other intelligence data. The ESAT's infra-red detectors would be cooled to -150K, using a passive liquid-helium system or an active Sterling cycle system. MMS - the former BAe Space Systems division - has extensive experience in space-qualified coolers and has been baselined for Brilliant Eyes.


Source: Flight International