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Satellite data relays

Let the revolution begin

 

Only three years until almost real-time satellite imagery becomes a reality via the Airbus Defence and Space-operated geostationary data relay service.

Twelve months ago, ESA and Airbus Defence and Space established a public–private partnership for developing and operating the EDRS project and today the first payloads are ready to go into production (© ESA)

Twelve months ago, ESA and Airbus Defence and Space established a public–private partnership for developing and operating the EDRS project and today the first payloads are ready to go into production © ESA

Centralising data collected by satellites in space before non-stop transmission to Earth, dispensing with the need for an unwieldy network of land-based stations, will soon be a reality in Europe with the advent of the EDRS (European Data Relay System) programme. A year after ESA and Airbus Defence and Space entered into a public–private partnership to cover the programme’s development and operation, and after reviewing the project’s key elements, the partners have confirmed that the project will indeed be pursued as initially defined.

“We have now come to a satisfactory financial agreement with ESA and the most crucial technical issues have been dealt with,” explains Philippe Vidal, Head of Business Delivery, Airbus Defence and Space Government Communications. “Not all the challenges are behind us of course, but we’re confident that we will be able to tackle whatever lies ahead.”

The next task lined up for Airbus Defence and Space and partners will be lofting the first two payloads, made by Airbus Defence and Space’s German subsidiary TESAT, into orbit.

TESAT’s laser communication terminal (LCT)
TESAT’s laser communication terminal (LCT)

 

The first – EDRS-A – will be a hosted payload on a Eutelsat satellite to be located at 9°E, scheduled for launch at the end of 2014 / early 2015. As the satellite’s prime contractor, Airbus Defence and Space will also be responsible for payload integration. The second – EDRS-C – is due to be launched at the beginning of 2016 on a specially-configured satellite to be positioned at 31°E, built by the subcontractor OHB-System. Additionally, Airbus Defence and Space is in charge of setting up the three ground stations (in Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom) that will send the data to customers.

The first EDRS payload, constructed by TESAT in Germany, will be a hosted payload on board EUTELSAT 9B, built by Airbus Defence and Space for Eutelsat. It will be positioned directly above the equator at 9°E, in 2014 or 2015

The first EDRS payload, constructed by TESAT in Germany, will be a hosted payload on board EUTELSAT 9B, built by Airbus Defence and Space for Eutelsat. It will be positioned directly above the equator at 9°E, in 2014 or 2015

The system’s configuration is designed to cover the whole of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, as well as Europe, Africa, the Middle East, a sizeable part of Asia and the East coast of the Americas. EDRS-D and –E, under a future contract with ESA, will eventually complete the constellation to provide global coverage.

An artist’s impression of the EDRS system (© ESA)

An artist’s impression of the EDRS system © ESA

Unlike some of the currently-operational data relay systems, such as the American or Russian ones, the European network will not only have the ability to offer inter-satellite Ka-band links (300 Mbps), but also very high-speed laser-beam communications (1.8 Gbps). This state-of-the-art technology – already proven in space by Airbus Defence and Space back in 2001 – will soon be put to use by an operational infrastructure for the very first time.

This technological breakthrough will see the dawn of a brand new market.

Europe’s GMES will be the very first programme to benefit from EDRS

Europe’s GMES will be the very first programme to benefit from EDRSEurope’s GMES will be the very first programme to benefit from EDRS

EDRS’s first customer is of course ESA, whose four Sentinel satellites, 1A/B and 2A/B, will be using the system for the GMES initiative (Global Monitoring for Environment & Security). These Sentinel satellites will monitor the atmosphere, marine environments, ice sheets and land masses and with EDRS, they will be able to transfer their measurements over a period of time exceeding half their orbit without having to wait until they come back into view of the ground stations in Kiruna (Sweden), Redu (Belgium) or Svalbaard (Norway), as is currently the case. Conversely, the orbital relays will enable any necessary satellite reprogramming to be performed without delay. Also worthy of note here, some of the decisions taken at the last ESA Council meeting at the end of November were of great significance to EDRS, such as the decision to finance the LCTs on the four Sentinel satellites and the pursuit of the GMES space segment with the Sentinel-5 programme – a contract that Airbus Defence and Space also stands a great chance of winning.

Sentinel-2A’s platform at Airbus Defence and Space’s site in Friedrichshafen (© Airbus Defence and Space / A.Ruttloff / 2011)

Airbus Defence and Space has also already started prospecting other potential users. “Our targets include operators of low Earth orbit observation satellites, both radar and optical, regardless of whether they are military, civil or dual-use, public or private, and we are also prospecting meteorological satellite operators,” Philippe explains. “Making contact now means that they can equip their satellites with a laser terminal and link up to our relays. Satellite production cycles being so lengthy, we considered it important to get started four or five years ahead of the game."

Certain bandwidth-hungry segments (radar, weather, climatology) prefer laser technology, while others have more limited needs such as the armed forces, prioritising images of precise zones for which Ka-band might be a suitable option. However, lasers are not easily intercepted or jammed, making them highly advantageous for certain military applications. Furthermore, the laser technology could also be used on increasingly popular UAVs, in particular the high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance devices.

With EDRS, satellites will be able to send images in real time or almost real time; a world first in the field of Earth observation. The system is set to revolutionise data retrieval, especially for emergency services such as disaster management and operational defence missions. Airbus Defence and Space, the world’s leading exporter of observation satellites, looks forward to offering this enhanced service, optimising the way operators can use satellites while reducing ground segment costs, which will all contribute to bolstering its market share.

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