With his Starlink constellation, Elon Musk will send tens of thousands of satellites in space. The head of Space X aims through this gigantic project to connect the whole world with the Internet. “But this new type of constellation presents two difficulties. The first major challenge is managing room clutter to avoid collisions and the risk of creating additional debris. Then it is about whether these constellations will only be used for internet access“, points out Joël Castets, chairman of Agenium.
A pioneering SME in space surveillance
This Toulouse-based SME founded in 2003 has supported the Ministry of the Armed Forces for almost 20 years in the use of space surveillance software. What made him be part of the strategic companies in basis Industrial and Technological Defense (BITD) French.
“We provide tools that provide a good overview of the space situation, and we support the military in the use of these products. Three elements are essential in relation to space surveillance. First of all spatial situation, in other words when a satellite passes overhead. Then you must check the suspicious movements of satellites to detect hostile maneuvers or espionage with respect to our satellites. And then you have to look at the risk of fallout, in other words assess where falling waste”, explains Joël Castets.
Over the past few years, space surveillance has become a growing concern for the French military. And not only because the multiplication of objects in orbit with the emergence of Starlink-type constellations. Florence Parly (then Minister of the Armed Forces) revealed in 2018 in Toulouse a Russian espionage attempt targeting a French satellite, Athena-Fidus, highlighting the vulnerability of the national space infrastructure. Several countries such as China, India and more recently Russia have gone as far as firing at a satellite as a show of force. From this growing threat, the Space Command was born in 2019, which took up residence at Cnes in Toulouse. One of the first realizations of the CDE consisted in the organization of two AsterX exercises in the spring of 2021 and 2022, where a dozen scenarios of anomalies in space were tested virtually.
Easy identification of anomalies in space
Among the software tools used during the two editions of AsterX, the French military relied on a solution devised by Toulouse-based SME Agenium.
“We have developed a tool called SACS (for Spatial Catalog Aggregation System) that makes it easier to find information about satellite orbit data in The STK interface (reference software used in space and developed by the American publisher AGI).
Our solution enables operators to find information faster in the STK catalog and simply produce graphics to get some fairly quick analysis so that the operator, who is not necessarily a space expert, can have relevant information to track an anomaly, an abnormal behavior of a satellite”, describes the president of Agenium.
The Toulouse company is considering other software innovations for future editions of AsterX. A solution similar to that used for space surveillance has also been developed, but this time for the navy. “Our tool is already used on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier or multi-mission frigates (FREMM). It allows a boat upstream of a mission or in real time to know if it is at risk of becoming one observed or listened to by a friendly or hostile satellite in its path“, says Joël Castets. Agenium’s industrial arm has also designed a box to manage the availability of GPS antennas for military boat peripherals.
With around sixty employees, Agenium expects a significant increase in revenue, rising from 7.5 million euros last year to just under 11 million euros in 2022. Organic growth driven by support from the Ministry of Defense and more specifically from the Directorate General for Weapons (DGA). 80% of Agenium’s turnover is linked to the Ministry of Defence, of which 60% via direct contracts and a further 20% via indirect contracts as a subcontractor to manufacturers such as Airbus or Thales. “DGA really trusts the SMEs in BITD that offer improvements in everyday life also for the military. This also involves digitization of professions. Previously we had to use a lot of Excel sheets, we are trying to automate a whole series of processes“, specifies the manager of Agenium.
The SME also has the advantage that it is not dependent on foreign shareholders. It plays on the tricolor card to independently support the French armies in the selection of foreign software tools, sometimes American. The announced promotion of the Space Command in Toulouse, a stone’s throw from Agenium’s premises, and the upcoming arrival of NATO’s Center of Excellence in the same district could further boost the company’s growth. “The regrouping of military personnel in Toulouse will create a dynamic and the physical proximity will further facilitate the exchange“, Joël Castets hopes.