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Europe's New Space Laser Network Could Provide Almost Real-Time Images Of Earth

Imagine you could get almost live images of Earth from space, with a delay of just tens of minutes as an orbiting satellite returned photos to the ground. That’s a dream that is one step closer to reality with the launch

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Harwell Campus in the U.K. is providing one of the ground stations for the network. ESA/Harwell

by Jonathan O'Callaghan, IFL Science

On Friday, January 29, the first component of the €500 million (£380 million/$550 million)European Data Relay System was taken to orbit by a Proton rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Defence and Space. At a height of about 36,000 kilometers (22,370 miles), the satellite will be parked in a stable orbit over Europe, and operated by Eutelsat.

This satellite won’t be taking images of Earth, though. Instead, it is part of a new network of laser-communicating satellites, which will significantly increase data transmission times to the ground, in this case a station at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire in the U.K., and two others in Belgium and Germany. This will be Europe’s first optical communications network.

"It’s a kind of broadband network in space offering capabilities to transmit a large amount of data from Earth observation satellites down to Earth," said Magali Vaissiere, director of ESA’s telecommunications and integrated applications division.

At the moment, satellites in low Earth orbit must individually make contact with the ground to unload their data when they pass over a ground station. This rate of data transmission can take hours, days, or longer.

Using a relay satellite, though, which is constantly in contact with Earth, the orbiting satellites can unload their information in space before it is immediately sent to Earth. What’s more, this relay satellite uses laser communication to talk to other satellites and the ground, much faster than previous methods of communication. 

This will allow for data transfer rates of 1.8 GB per second, and it’s estimated this could bring the time between taking an image and receiving it on the ground down to around 20 minutes, reported the BBC. Potential uses include almost real-time monitoring of disasters, in addition to tracking criminal activity such as illegal fishing.

"We have already demonstrated quasi real-time performance of below 20 minutes for bringing monitoring information from the coast of Brazil to the user's desk," Vaissiere told the BBC. "And with this capability, the European Data Relay System (EDRS) may open up a new horizon to what I would call quasi real time Earth observation."

This is the first “node” of the EDRS system, called Eutelsat 9B, although it is only in testing at the moment, with full operations expected in the summer. A second node will launch next year, also parked above Europe, with a third planned for the Asia-Pacific region in 2020.

While only two satellites are capable of using these nodes for now, many more could make use of this capability in the near-future. For example, the International Space Station (ISS) is expected to make use of the advanced capabilities from 2018.

And for people relying on data from satellites on the ground, this network could provide a service far advanced than anything in operation at the moment, opening up new possibilities in space utilization.

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