German Armed Forces: SARah-1 spy satellite launches with SpaceX

The German military’s Earth observation program costs around €800 million. The foreign secret service also uses it, but is getting its own spy system under the name Georg.

On Saturday, the Bundeswehr plans to bring its first new SARah series spy satellite into space. The launch, which can be watched live, will take place from Vandenberg Rocket Base in California and is targeted for 1:30 p.m. GMT+2.

The satellite, which weighs about four tons, will be transported into space on a two-stage Falcon 9 from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. The launch vehicle is partially reusable.

The company responsible for developing the SARah satellites is OHB System in Bremen, which was commissioned to do so by the German Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support in 2013. The SARah-1 was manufactured under a subcontract by Airbus in Friedrichshafen.

Three satellites and two ground stations

The entire reconnaissance system consists of three satellites and a ground segment consisting of two ground stations. It is to replace the SAR-Lupe system used by the military since 2008, which is capable of displaying objects measuring 50 centimeters or more. The following two satellites are being built by OHB as the exclusive prime contractor.

SARah-1 is based on ultra-high resolution radar technology that provides imagery regardless of the time of day or weather conditions. The capitalized acronym stands for Synthetic Aperture Radar. It is used to scan the earth’s surface with electromagnetic waves and display two-dimensional images. These images are difficult for the human eye to interpret and are therefore displayed with the help of computers.

According to Airbus, the radar component is an active phased array antenna. This focuses radiated energy from multiple sources onto a single target. The technology is already used in the TerraSAR, TanDEM-X and PAZ Earth observation satellites built by Airbus. The imagery is thereby delivered „in record time.“

€800 million for SARah program

Meanwhile, SARah-1 has been transported to the United States and is being prepared for launch. Commissioning of the satellite will be supervised from Airbus‘ control center in Friedrichshafen. Calibration and operation will then be carried out from the Bundeswehr control center.

The German parliament has approved a total of around €800 million for the SARah program. The fact that the system is being launched with SpaceX and not, for example, with Franco-German Ariane rockets is causing criticism.

The main concern is the competitiveness of the European space industry, but there is also fear that foreign intelligence services will be able to inspect the spy system before launch. According to the Federal Ministry of Economics, however, this is „fundamentally not possible.“ The satellites would be guarded abroad by the Bundeswehr’s military police, among others.

BND uses Georg

The German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) is also allowed to use SARah’s images. However, with Georg (Geheimes Elektro-Optisches Reconnaissance System Germany), the foreign intelligence service operates its own satellite system based on electro-optical reconnaissance. The name presumably alludes to St. George, who is considered the patron saint of the BND.

The contract for the total of three satellites was awarded to OHB. The entire system is estimated to cost over half a billion euros. Georg is also to be put into orbit with the help of SpaceX. However, the launch of the first satellite is still delayed.

Image: Airbus‘ SARah-1 satellite and a ground station in Germany (Airbus).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.