The German military wants to use a new radar spy system to spy through trees and camouflage nets from space. Secret service agents could also benefit from this.
On Sunday, the German Armed Forces launched two more satellites from their new reconnaissance system into space. Together with a satellite already launched into orbit in June 2022, they form the SARah imaging reconnaissance system, which the military intends to use to improve its “early crisis detection and crisis management”. The name is a play on words with the abbreviation for Synthetic Aperture Radar, an imaging radar method on which the espionage from space is based.
SARah was commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Defence, which is spending around €816 million on the project – which is double of the original cost estimate. The budget committee of the Bundestag passed a corresponding resolution in 2013. The launch of the first SARah satellite was originally planned for 2018 and had to be postponed several times.
According to experts, the SAR satellites provide images with a resolution of 50 centimetres. In contrast to optical satellites, the radar images are independent of the time of day and weather. The overall system also includes two ground stations for receiving data from space, one of which is to be located in the municipality of Grafschaft in the Rhineland-Palatinate district of Ahrweiler and the other in Kiruna, Sweden.
The two Bundeswehr satellites had already been flown from Ramstein Air Base in Rhineland-Palatinate to California in mid-November with the help of a US Air Force transport aircraft. The launch on Christmas Eve took place with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California (USA). It was the 96th successful launch this year for the company owned by billionaire Elon Musk.
After a flight time of 25 minutes, the rocket deployed the satellites in space as planned. In the so-called launch and early orbit phase, the various systems were then powered up and functions checked. Shortly afterwards, the first signals were received, explained the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support. The “space body” is now being steered into its final orbit. “Full operational use” of the SARah system is therefore planned for September 2024.
SARah is the successor mission to the SAR-Lupe system, which has been in service since 2007 and whose five satellites the Bundeswehr intends to continue using. The military procurement office awarded the main contract for the realisation of both systems and their subsequent operation to OHB from Bremen. The company claims that SARah will also be able to take images through trees, camouflage nets and the top layer of soil.
The subcontractor is the armaments division of Airbus, which also has its headquarters in Bremen. Airbus was responsible for the production of the first “phased array satellite” already in space. This is an expensive radar technology with electronic beam steering. The reflector satellites now in orbit are a further development of SAR-Lupe and come from OHB. The company also operates the satellites for the Galileo geoinformation system on behalf of the EU.
The system is expected to deliver data until at least 2033. They are evaluated by the “Central Imaging Reconnaissance” department of the Bundeswehr’s Cyber and Information Space Command in Grafschaft in Rhineland-Palatinate. Since 2009, the Bundeswehr has also been operating a space situation centre in Uedem, North Rhine-Westphalia.
With a “Secret Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System Germany” (Georg), the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) was also to receive a space-based spy system from OHB. According to initial plans, the first satellites were to deliver images from 2022, but this is currently scheduled for 2025. Until then, the foreign secret service will remain dependent on commercial operators of spy satellites. The German Armed Forces could now contribute with the SARah system to close the BND’s surveillance gap.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: The launch of the first SARah satellite with a rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company (SpaceX/Airbus).