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ESA Inaugurates Space Data Highway With Laser Communications

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
November 25, 2016
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ESA logoPARIS (ESA PR) — The European Data Relay System began servicing Europe’s Earth observing Copernicus programme yesterday, transferring observations in quasi-real time using cutting-edge laser technology.

The EDRS–SpaceDataHighway will now begin providing a commercial service to the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinels – the first and only of its kind. EDRS is a public–private partnership between ESA and Airbus Defence and Space, with ESA supporting the initial technology development and the company providing the commercial service. The European Commission is EDRS’s anchor customer through its Sentinel-1 and -2 missions.

EDRS accelerates the transmission of data from low-orbiting satellites like the Sentinels to the end user on the ground. It does so by locking onto the satellites with a laser beam as they pass below, and immediately relaying the information to European ground stations via a high-speed radio beam.

Low-orbiting satellites must usually wait until they travel within view of a ground station to downlink the data they have gathered, resulting in a delay of up to 90 minutes per 100-minute orbit. This is because most ground stations that serve low-orbiting satellites are located in the polar regions, although the Sentinels have additional stations in Italy and Spain.

Nevertheless, Earth observation satellite data are increasingly being used for time-sensitive applications like disaster response, maritime surveillance and security, where speed is of the essence.

EDRS will help to solve this problem. As the world’s first optical satellite communication network in ‘geostationary’ orbit – where satellites takes 24hr to circle Earth and thus appear to ‘hang’ in the sky – it will relay unprecedented amounts of potentially life-saving data per day in near-real time.

The EDRS-A first node will now start collecting data from Sentinel-1A. The two satellites will link via laser beam up to 15 times per day.

The EDRS-C second node will be launched in 2017 to help transfer the massive amounts of data being sent back and forth over Europe.

Unlike EDRS-A, which is hosted on a Eutelsat commercial satellite, EDRS-C is a dedicated satellite built specifically for the system.

Both nodes carry a TESAT payload with a laser intersatellite terminal developed under funding by the DLR German Aerospace Center. EDRS-A also carries a high-speed Ka-band intersatellite payload to relay data to and from the International Space Station.

The first two satellites are planned to be complemented by the EDRS-D third node over Asia in 2020.

EDRS-D is part of a programme called GlobeNet, which will extend the EDRS quasi-realtime data relay coverage from Europe to worldwide.

GlobeNet will also link to both manned and remotely piloted aircraft, providing two-way communications that can be used for command, control and the rapid download of sensor data, complementing those obtained from Earth observation satellites.

The net result will be that Earth observation data can be received anywhere on Earth in near-real time, greatly increasing its value for a host of time-critical applications such as disaster and emergency response.

“As the first commercial data relay service in the world to use lasers, the EDRS–SpaceDataHighway represents forward-thinking innovation at its best. ESA will continue working with our partners, Airbus Defence and Space and the European Commission, to keep pushing the envelope of technological progress by extending this success to worldwide coverage with GlobeNet,” said Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications.

“The EDRS–SpaceDataHighway offers a new dimension of data access from our Sentinel satellites, allowing faster access to images as well as a back-up capacity to classical ground receiving stations. This becomes increasingly important to satisfy the increasing demands of our user communities,” says Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes.

“SpaceDataHighway is no longer science fiction, it will revolutionise satellite communications,” added Evert Dudok, Head of Communications, Intelligence & Security at Airbus Defence and Space.

“It will totally change the way humanitarian crisis, maritime safety and the protection of environment can be managed.”

“Germany has strategically invested in optical communication and intends to continue with the evolution in the ESA ‘ScyLight’ programme. Now we have chance to transform the European technological leadership into a market leadership,” said Dr Gerd Gruppe of DLR’s Executive Board, responsible for space administration.