An Airbus Defence and Space project could revolutionise observation from space. GO-3S satellite would potentially be capable in just a few minutes of directing its 100km x 100km field of observation to a target zone to transmit images and video to the ground in real time.
An optical observation satellite in geostationary orbit would be able to continuously monitor a specific location on Earth, opening up unprecedented prospects in the fields of defence, natural disaster management, infrastructure protection, security and many others.
June 2025, a humanitarian disaster in a country in the Sahel forces tens of thousands to flee to borders with the neighbouring countries. The United Nations services are glued to their monitors, watching the real-time video feed from a GO-3S satellite; it’s providing up-to-the-minute surveillance of population movements and supplying data which will help direct other sensors and rapidly define the action plans needed to organise medical and food aid and set up emergency camps. Valuable time will be saved, as will, ultimately, human lives…
This emergency management scenario could soon become a reality, thanks to Airbus Defence and Space, whose GO-3S (Geostationary Observation Space Surveillance System) project could revolutionise the satellite imaging market.
“The GO-3S satellite is part of Airbus Defence and Space’s innovation approach. Since 2007, we have been conducting detailed studies designed to achieve a major breakthrough in terms of persistence and accessibility of space observation. By persistence, I mean the ability to observe a given area continuously, over a sufficiently long period, and by accessibility, I mean the ability to carry out this observation as and when needed,” explains Norbert Hazan, head of defence and security future observation programmes at Airbus Defence and Space. At present, although satellites in low Earth orbit (600 to 800 km altitude) such as SPOT, Helios, Pléiades or TerraSAR-X – all developed by Airbus Defence and Space – are able to provide crucial and extremely precise data on all points on the planet, users have to wait for them to overfly the target zone and then a reception antenna before they can receive the images. “An image of a precise point on the planet is often enough, but many situations, such as humanitarian emergencies or disasters, demand rapid reaction and decision-making and therefore require reliable information in real time, something that would be possible with video monitoring from space, as proposed by GO-3S,” Norbert explains.
Placed in a geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometres above Earth, the GO-3S satellite will consist of a platform carrying a very large telescope, with a 4.2-metre diameter aperture. This is even larger than the Herschel telescope (3.5 metres in diameter) built by Airbus Defence and Space for the European Space Agency and which has now been operating in orbit for three years. Each GO-3S satellite would potentially be able to access one quarter of the planet for daytime observation and would be capable in just a few minutes of directing its 100km x 100km field of observation to a target zone and then switching to another zone just as quickly. It would then transmit images and video to the ground in real time. The resolution in straight-down observation mode would be three metres. On this basis more precise images would, as necessary, then be ordered from other satellites in low Earth orbit, thereby making more targeted and efficient use of these satellites.
When it comes to the feasibility of this project, Norbert is extremely confident: “The basic technologies already exist both for the platform and for the video filming instrument, and we have already put them into operation. They now have to be adapted to a larger satellite,” he explains. Silicon carbide is an essential component of telescope mirrors and, for example, is able to guarantee the stability and micrometric precision of the mirror, irrespective of temperature differences between the different parts of the instrument. The technologies to be used for the satellite platform have also been proven, such as that enabling it to point a telescope at a target zone in a space environment and guarantee its stability, a feature that is essential for correct imaging. “Such a system already exists on the Pléiades 1A satellite, which was developed by Airbus Defence and Space and launched in December 2011, but once again adaptations will be needed, because the size of the Pléiades 1A telescope mirror is only 650 millimetres,” he points out.
The GO-3S adventure, however, involves more than simply adapting existing technologies. This project is also a vehicle for new technologies representing a major step forward in high-resolution Earth observation. Thanks to GO-3S, Airbus Defence and Space will make progress in the field of active telescope control. This ‘active optics’ innovation will allow any deformation of the telescope’s large mirror as a result of its environment to be actively compensated, the benefit being preservation of the quality of the image produced by the instrument.
Many promising applications for the future
There will be no shortage of civil and military applications for GO-3S. “In the defence field, satellites are already an integral part of the fabric of military operations,” explains Benoît de Maupeou, head of defence strategy and development at Airbus Defence and Space. For example, during Operation Harmattan in Libya, the French Helios 1A satellite was used intensively for intelligence, air mission preparation and impact assessment. “The military are interested in the permanence of observation in theatres of operation that will be provided by GO-3S. This capacity will supplement the information provided by other types of satellite and will, for example, allow continuous monitoring of moving objects,” explains Benoît.
And the number of civil applications is set to be just as high: management of natural disasters, security of major events, surveillance of ecosystems and so on. But there is more to it than that. “This satellite could also be of use in monitoring critical energy or transport infrastructures,” he continues, mentioning the future large networks of wind farms or thermal power plants to be created offshore at various points around the world and which will require constant protection and monitoring. The Airbus Defence and Space project is also of interest to the media, in particular companies providing images and video to TV channels or web providers worldwide, for real-time illustration of current news.
For the time being, GO-3S is still at the feasibility studies stage. “We are currently running self-funded prospecting campaigns to identify potential customers, whether private or institutional and governmental, including outside Europe,” explains Benoît. Technical discussions are also in progress with the French space agency CNES, whose expertise is essential for confirming the technical validity of the concept, in particular for investors interested in taking part in the programme. Discussions about public-private project financing have also started.
“The potential of GO-3S as an instrument of sovereignty is extremely interesting and this satellite could be the subject of strategic partnerships with government users in France, going a step further than the Pléiades model, which already uses a partnership between defence, industry and CNES,” he explains. “A real revolution in the world of satellite imaging is at hand,” concludes Norbert Hazan.
Matthieu Alexandropoulos, UP Magazine to Planet AIRBUS Group