The Luxembourg government’s space ambitions began with an ownership stake in, and support for, telecommunications fleet operator SES; then the GovSat joint venture with SES for military satellite telecommunications; followed by investment in and support for asteroid mining companies. Now it’s Earth observation, with a single optical satellite. Credit: Defense directorate, Luxembourg Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs

PARIS — The Luxembourg government, in its latest move to raise its profile in the NATO alliance and Europe’s defense policy, has agreed to purchase and launch a single high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite.

While designed as a contribution to NATO and European Union defense programs, the satellite is also an example of the challenges in European military integration.

France has a long-established optical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity. Spain is about to launch both optical and radar reconnaissance satellites. Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) has approved the purchase of an optical satellite reconnaissance system from German industry, a move that has not been well-received in France.

Italy’s radar satellite system has been complemented by a single high-resolution satellite purchased, as part of a barter agreement for military jet trainers, a high-resolution optical satellite system.

And now Luxembourg, whose plans for a space-based ISR are coherent with the high priority the government has placed on space-based capacity.

The ISR program has been in the works for several months and was formally approved Jan. 19 by Luxembourg’s council of ministers.

In a statement, the ministers said the satellite will “permit the government to satisfy its defense needs and obligations… and permit [Luxembourg] to participate in the realization of NATO’s goals, notably the capacity objective as part of NATO’s defense planning mechanism.”

It was not immediately clear how Luxembourg would integrate the satellite’s capacity into NATO.

The NATO alliance is likely to be purchasing military satellite communications capacity from several of its member nations, notably the United States, France, Britain and Italy, with the possible contribution of Germany and Spain — all of which have their own national military satcom networks.

Luxembourg is adding to these telecom capacity with the GovSat joint venture entered into with commercial satellite fleet operator SES. GovSat-1 is scheduled for launch around the end of this month by SpaceX of the United States.

But NATO up to now has not created a similar procurement structure for Earth observation data.

The 28-nation European Union has such a structure in the European Satellite Center outside Madrid, whose budget is used to purchase images from commercial and European government geospatial imaging satellites for military mission planning.

The council of ministers’ statement said Luxembourg would use the satellite’s capacity to prove its bona fides as an ally in NATO and in the European Union.

“Making available this very high-value-added capacity to its institutional partners, the purchase and operation of an Earth observation satellite with a very high resolution will allow Luxembourg to participate, in a tangible and significant way, to international operators managed by NATO or the EU,” the statement said.

The Earth observation satellite project was one of the items listed in Luxembourg’s Horizon 2025 defense planning document, which identifies as priorities “space-based observation, communication and data transfer, notably for the security of deployed forces.”

The French Defense Ministry in 2010 ordered to high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellites from Airbus and Thales Alenia Space, for 795 million euros, or about $950 million. The German Defense Ministry subsequently agreed to pay for a third satellite for the constellation. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

Luxembourg officials have said they would operate the satellite in coordination with other EU nations’ capacity. It was not clear if one option is to build a fourth CSO, or Optical Space Component, satellite to be added to the French-German constellation.

The French Defense Ministry is financing the first two CSO satellites, with launches to start this year. The German Defense Ministry — not the BND — has agreed to finance a third satellite to field a more-robust constellation.