Azur, the first German satellite

Azur (also called GRS-A), launched into a near-polar orbit from the Vandenberg Air Force Base (a United States Air Force Base in California) on November 8, 1969, was the first German artificial satellite.

Azur, the first German satellite

Germany’s first scientific satellite studied the Van Allen radiation belt (a zone of energetic charged particles, most of which originate from the solar wind, that are captured by and held around a planet by that planet’s magnetic field; Earth has two such belts and sometimes others may be temporarily created), solar particles, and aurorae (sometimes referred to as polar lights, northern lights or aurora borealis, southern lights or aurora australis, a natural light display in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions; around the Arctic and Antarctica).

Azur’s orbital inclination with respect to the Equator was one hundred and three degrees and each orbit took a little more than two hours. With Azur, Germany leapt into space in the same year in which mankind first set foot on the Moon. Twelve years after the Russian satellite Sputnik 1 had heralded the age of space travel.

It was only after the Federal Republic obtained its sovereignty in 1955 that Germany was again allowed to carry out research on space flight, but the necessary expertise was lacking. German companies had practically no experience in the construction of spacecraft. After three years of preparation and planning, and numerous discussions, a July 17, 1965 Memorandum of Understanding between NASA and the German Ministry for Scientific Research initiated a cooperative project that would orbit a German scientific satellite to investigate the Earth’s inner radiation belt.

The agreement provided for the launch of the satellite after a successful series of sounding rocket tests to check out the proposed satellite instrumentation. NASA would provide the launch vehicle, a Scout (an acronym for Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system): the Scout family of rockets were American launch vehicles designed to place small satellites into orbit around the Earth.

The Scout multistage rocket was the first (and for a long time, the only) orbital launch vehicle to be entirely composed of solid fuel stages. The original Scout was designed in 1957 at the Langley Research Center. Scout launch vehicles were used from 1961 until 1994. NASA would also conduct launch operations, provide tracking and data acquisition, and train the Germans. In June 1966, NASA designated the satellite GRS-A, an acronym for “German Research Satellite-A”, which was renamed in early 1968 by West Germany Azur.

The Federal Republic of Germany therefore joined the states that already had satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO): the Soviet Union, the United States of America, Great Britain, Italy, France, Canada, Japan and Australia. The operation were managed from the German Space Operations Center (GSOC), operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) at Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich; Azur was GSOC’s first mission.

The interest of science was already great at that time: over one hundred experiments were proposed, seven of which could be selected for the flight. In addition, the then Federal Ministry for Scientific Research (BMwF) pursued the intention of using German-American cooperation to develop the technological capabilities of German industry, and gain know-how for the complex management of outer space missions. Germany used advanced American space research and rocket technology. This opened up the opportunity for German scientists to take part in outer space investigations. For the German industry, this opened up the door to play a major role in European cooperation in outer space projects.

Azur was a challenge for Germany, and not only due to its lack of technical experience. There was neither an organization to coordinate the project, nor did the necessary infrastructure exist – there were no test ranges or ground stations. The Society for Space Research (GfW) was established for the sole purpose of man aging the complete project.

The construction of the first German satellite, turning the country into a space-faring nation, was carried out by Ludwig Bölkow (June 30, 1912 – July 25, 2003), one of the aeronautical pioneers of Germany, and with the participation of other German companies. He was the driving force in national aviation and space travel, and championed the development of new technologies in his country.

Azur, weighing seventy-two kilograms and carrying seven different instruments to analyse the interactions between the solar wind (a stream of charged particles released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona) and Earth’s magnetic field, suffered from a failure of its tape recorder (so from that point on, the readings and control data could only be received as real-time information) five weeks after launch and, on June 29, 1970, contact was lost for unknown reasons.

Nevertheless, although the German satellite had not reached its expected lifetime of at least one year, the project that has recovered eighty-five to ninety per cent of the expected data is considered a success. This U.S.-German cooperation laid the groundwork for a sustainable outer space cooperation between Germany and the United States of America which will lead, a few years later, to the realization of Helios-A and Helios-B (also known as Helios 1 and Helios 2), a pair of probes launched into heliocentric orbit for the purpose of studying solar processes. Over the past thirty-five years, Germany has developed a high level of competence in satellite construction.

Azur’s legal status

What are satellites? They are space object. The term Object in reference to outer space was first used in 1961 in General Assembly Resolution 1721 (XVI) titled International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space to describe any object launched by States into outer space. Professor Bin Cheng, a world authority on International Air and Space Law, has noted that members of the COPUOS during negotiations over the space treaties treated spacecraft and space vehicles as synonymous terms. The Space Object can be considered as the conventional launcher, the reusable launcher, the satellite, the orbital station, the probe, the impactor, the space telescope…

The term “space object” is not precisely defined by the Onusian space treaties. Let’s note that the five outer space treaties use such phrases as “objects launched into outer space”, object placed “in orbit around the Earth”, “in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the Moon”, or “around other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the Earth”. Some of the treaties refer also to “spacecraft”, or “landed or constructed on a celestial body”, “man-made space objects”, “space vehicle”, “supplies”, “equipment”, “installations”, “facilities” and “stations”.

Let’s remember that “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”, article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969. In addition, “Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31: (a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or (b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable”, article 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969.

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t really provide a definition for “object launched into outer space” other than an indication in Article VIII that it includes the “component parts” of the “object launched into outer space”. It states that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

We can conclude by saying that Azur, the first German satellite, was a space object.