French ONERA and outer space

Let’s have a look at the French ONERA and outer space. More than sixty years after its conquest, outer space is at the heart of the life of states and their inhabitants. More than ever, it constitutes this “new frontier” and its control is a marker of power and prestige well identified. It is used daily by scientists in the study of an Earth under surveillance, as well as to probe and explore the Universe. It is also part of the day-to-day lives of billions of people, using the geolocation capabilities provided by GPS and Galileo constellations.

In addition, outer space has been heavily militarised since the beginning of its conquest: a ballistic missile transit medium, and a satellite positioning medium. As a post office area, it extends the search for the advantage given by the mastery of a “high point”. It is also an environment intimately linked to nuclear capabilities and state ballistics.

The Defense and National Security Strategic Review, published in December 2017, also makes a special mention of “the exo-atmospheric space” under the heading “disputed spaces”. In particular, it indicates that this is a “poorly regulated” environment, and that the trivialisation of access to outer space will make it an area of ​​confrontation between states, in other words, the question of weaponization of outer space is already in place.

The very recent positions adopted in the United States of America reinforce this trend. At the third meeting of the National Space Council, held on June 18, 2018, the President of the United States of America emphasised the importance of the space sector, in terms of job creation and national pride, but also in the field of defense. It is in this context that he asked the Defense to set up a Space Force.

This trend is also confirmed by the various demonstrations of force that we have been witnessing for years: very recently, it was India that proceeded to the destruction of one of its satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), using a missile, becoming thus the fourth country to demonstrate an anti-satellite capability.

Nothing that happens in outer space is therefore trivial for France and, for about a year now, several initiatives emanating in particular from the Ministry of the Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Economy, and the Ministry of Higher Education, have re-examined the space policy elements of the country.

The Office National d’Études et de Recherches Aérospatiales (ONERA) is the French national aerospace research centre. It is a public establishment, with industrial and commercial operations, and carries out application-oriented research to support enhanced innovation and competitiveness in the aerospace and defense sectors. ONERA was created in 1946 as the “Office National d’Études et de Recherches Aéronautiques”. Since 1963, its official name has been changed to include space activities.

ONERA’s investment in the space sector concerns both civilian and military purposes, where research focuses on space surveillance, the acquisition of geospatial intelligence, or the development of sensors at sometimes unique levels in the world.

Surveillance of space, its challenges of sovereignty, and its diplomatic benefits

The GRAVES (Grand Réseau Adapté à la Veille Spatiale or Large Network Adapted to Space Watch) radar is the only operational space surveillance system in Europe. It is used by the French Air Force and its data are exploited at the CNOA (Centre National des Opérations Aérienne or National Center for Air Operations) based near Lyon. It was designed by ONERA, and it is also ONERA that has driven its realisation. Thanks to the French ONERA, France has an autonomous database of the orbital elements of the different satellites.

Since it was put into operational service in 2005, it has listed and regularly monitored over two thousand and five hundred objects that pass over France’s territory. It allows France to have an autonomous development and maintenance of the space situation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on the objects of the range of the mini-satellite at an altitude of roughly one thousand kilometres.

This achievement also illustrates ONERA’s contribution to the sovereignty of France and its diplomacy since, on April 14, 2015, on the side-lines of the Space Symposium, the annual meeting of space professionals in Colorado Springs, the French Joint Space Command (CIE) and the U.S. Strategic Command have signed a technical arrangement to strengthen bilateral Franco-American cooperation in the area of ​​space surveillance. This arrangement was a continuation of the Memorandum of Understanding signed in January 2001; it extends the sharing of useful data for space surveillance, ensures the safety of satellites, and combats the proliferation of space debris.

ONERA is now working on the future of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) monitoring, that is to say, altitudes below two thousand kilometres, by proposing a system capable of responding to the challenges dictated by developments in the space environment. In the future, it is a question of having the knowledge to adapt to the dynamics of the new objects in orbit, to improve the detection of smaller and certainly manoeuvring satellites, and to catalog many more numerous and more varied measurements. In summary, it will be necessary in the near future to be able to catalog smaller space objects, in greater numbers, and at higher altitudes.

Space surveillance is not limited to the use of radar, but includes optics through the use of adaptive optics skills. Adaptive optics enable real-time correction of disturbances caused by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, and provide a high-resolution image of a satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by enabling the subsystems of which it is composed, to be identified. ONERA uses a telescope of one meter and a half diameter, equipped with an adaptive optics system, including a wave surface analyser, and deformable optics to obtain images and video sequences of satellites.

Meteorology, a natural supplement of surveillance – French ONERA

Outer Space is also a medium that can be dangerous simply because of the natural phenomena of which it is the seat. We know how atmospheric meteorological conditions affect military operations and, like classical meteorology, there is also a space weather whose knowledge is decisive for a space power such as France. ONERA has dedicated scientific teams to this activity, notably to model radiation belts and charged particle fluxes, and to study theoretically and experimentally the interactions between a satellite and its environment. This knowledge of the environment also allows to be able to differentiate, to remove any ambiguity, between disturbances of natural origin, and aggression. It will be a question of being able to qualify the real dangerousness of the threats which will appear, and to deduce the risks incurred, in order to elaborate the solutions of mitigation of these risks, even of protection of satellites.

The ballistic anti-missile space alert: a recurrent concern

The proliferation of the ballistic threat is certainly not a new subject, but it has been particularly acute for some time now, with the recent demonstrations of North Korea. Recently, Iran tested its Khorramshahr missile, with a range of two thousand kilometres, a missile of North Korean origin based on a Russian missile.

To be able to counter a ballistic missile, the key point is to be able to detect its launch early enough to allow a missile defense system to come into action. Ten years ago, France launched two satellites named SPIRALE that made it possible to have a satellite capable of detecting missiles, and, above all, to collect a harvest of information. SPIRALE has indeed enabled the creation of a database that includes a very large number of images essential to the understanding of natural and physical phenomena that can generate false alarms during the detection of missiles during their propulsion phase.

French ONERA was in charge of exploiting this database, by confronting it in particular with the results of modelling of the ground in the infrared on the one hand, and infrared signatures of the missiles on the other hand. French ONERA used its expertise in modelling atmospheric scenes and measurements of cloudy scenes in the infrared domain. Regarding missile signature modelling, this is a difficult problem because it involves several disciplines (aerothermochemistry, radiation, influence of turbulence…) to obtain a representative result.

It can be seen that France has many assets to cope with the growing demand of its Armed Forces for the space environment. This is particularly the case in many highly technological sectors, such as sensors, whether optoelectronics or radar. On the other hand, France has been witnessing for several years now an acceleration of the pace of innovation, and a multiplication of actors. Although France must not lose sight of the fact that the gains made by private actors, particularly in the United States of America, traditionally cited as examples, are based on a long-term effort by the federal state, it is essential for France to find or acquire a pioneering spirit. After all, to mention only the military space, France did it with missions like Clementine or Spirale not so long ago.