GP Insights

GP Insights # 122, 10 August 2019

Europe:  Space Agency launches satellite enabling real-time Earth observation
Lakshman Chakravarthy

What happened?

On Tuesday, 6 August 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched the second satellite for the European Data Relay System (EDRS), a “SpaceDataHighway” created as a joint venture with the aerospace company Airbus. EDRS-C, the latest satellite joins EDRS-A launched in 2016 to relay the environment- and climate-related data captured by remote sensing satellites in Low Earth Orbit ( LEO) back to the ground stations in Europe in near-real-time.

These satellites use Laser Communication Technology (LCT) to pull data from other satellites at a record-setting speed of 1.8 gigabits per second, making the data ready-to-use just 15 minutes after its acquisition, which previously took few days.

What is the background?

Firstly, LEO satellites worldwide face a downlink delay problem wherein they are required to stand in line-of-sight with the ground stations for the acquired data to be downloaded, which happens only for 10 minutes during the 100-minute orbit period, thus creating a 90-minute delay in communication. The EDRS relay satellites quadruple the effective contact time of LEO satellites with the ground stations. This relay system is similar to US’ Tracking and Data Relay System (TRDS) used for conveying information from the Space Shuttle back to the ground stations.

Unlike TRDS, EDRS’ use of LCT creates new standards for rapid communication of large amounts of data from other satellites. This is important because telecom satellites face a bottleneck in transmission speed with their radio-frequency transmission in matching that of optical fibre networks connecting terrestrial devices.

Therefore Europe’s research ministers have decided to fund the 22-member ESA, wanting to see optical technology (of which, Europe is a global leader) play a bigger role in space communication. The previously launched satellites of Copernicus environmental satellite programme in 2014, the EU’s flagship Earth observation programme, was already equipped with laser portals, having EDRS in mind.

What does it mean?

The near real-time information becomes essential for accelerating responses to disaster recovery and extreme weather events, helping the first responders take decisions in real-time. Through this programme, Europe’s leadership in optical technologies comes to its advantage, enabling EDRS to offer a paradigm shift in satellite communication technology.

With its Made-in-Germany label, Europe can completely avoid relying on non-EU countries to gather Earth observation data without any time lag. This fits perfectly with safeguarding the pro-climate change policies that the EU upholds despite the opposing trends elsewhere.

With the third node in the EDRS system in place by 2025, the advanced global technological infrastructure gives Europe an upper hand in future negotiations, enabling other countries to partner with it rather than compete to benefit from EDRS services.

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