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Deal Breathes New Life Into France's Space-Surveillance Radar

December 12, 2016 (Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS — France signed Nov. 10 a deal with aerospace research office Onera to upgrade the ground-based "Graves" space-surveillance system, a move aimed at bolstering French sovereignty, the defense procurement office said on Monday.

The deal is worth around €40 million ($42 million), an Onera spokesperson said.

“The Direction Generale de l’Armement awarded Nov. 10, 2016, the modernization of the Graves (Grand Réseau Adapté à la Veille Spatiale) space radar to Onera (Office National d’Etudes et Recherches Aérospatiales), working with contractor Degreane Horizon,” DGA said in a statement. Degreane is a unit of Vinci Energies.

France and the United States have a bilateral agreement to share military intelligence gathered from foreign satellites on the Graves system, the business website La Tribune reported Onera chairman Bruno Sainjon as saying.

The French air force operates the radar to locate and track satellites and objects in orbit at 400 to 1,000 km above the Earth, the DGA said. The system allows the service to track foreign spy satellites gathering visual and signals intelligence on France. It also tracks space debris that could threaten French satellites.

Graves is the only such detection system in Europe, according to the DGA statement. The deal seeks to overcome obsolescence of a system which entered service in 2005 and eventually to improve performance, especially in the area of detecting a greater number of satellites of increasingly smaller size.

The operational life of Graves will be extended to 2030 and includes potential performance improvement, Onera said in a statement. The system allows the Air Force to catalog satellites passing overhead both at low orbit and out to 1,000 km.  

The contract is for five years, with a further three years under option, program manager Florent Muller told La Tribune. Apart from that initial modernization, Onera is studying options for future upgrades which would allow the system to detect mini satellites weighing less than 500 kg and micro satellites weighing less than 150 kg.

Radar tracking has allowed France to exchange data with the US, and in April 2015 the cooperation was extended as the two defense ministries wanted to swap classified information, Sainjon told La Tribune. Only the US, Russia and France operate such a space intelligence gathering capability. The system comprises a ground station for radar transmission, a reception station and a center for processing. Onera developed the technology for handling the satellite signals in the 1990s, handing the system over to the air force for operations in 2005.
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