Space Data Highway

Redefining Satellite Data Transfer

Artistís concept of the SpaceDataHighway courtesy of ESA.

Artistís concept of the SpaceDataHighway courtesy of ESA.

Akos Hegyi

Head of EDRS Services
Astrium Services
Munich, Germany

Todayís Data Transfer Challenges

Recent years have brought unprecedented development in satellite-based Earth observation (EO): a rising number of operational satellites, together with the enhanced resolution of acquired imagery, have resulted in a dramatic increase of data generated in space. Additionally, improved and novel applications (particularly in the fields of emergency services, security applications and rapid monitoring) require rapid tasking capabilities and shorter data delivery times. These developments are stretching the capabilities of current and future EO systems, particularly in regard to the performance of the ground segment in charge of retrieving the data.

Satellite operators today frequently rely on a network of polar and temperate ground stations to ensure coverage and latency for their missions. However, such networks are costly and complex, and require extensive terrestrial networks for data repatriation and distribution. With the number of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) continuously growing, the capacity, particularly of the polar ground stations (which provide the most access time to polar-orbiting satellites) is increasingly stretched, leading to potential data transmission interference when several satellites are passing over the station at the same time. Moreover, the ground station networks require the satellite operators to route the data over foreign territory, which can be an issue for some users.

In addition to these ground networks, a number of national data relay assets have been implemented and operated in various countries. These are, however, often overloaded, many are dated, and service continuity is at the moment not secured beyond the lifetime of the current systems.

Providing Data at the Right Time at the Right Place

To address these challenges, Astrium Services is implementing the SpaceDataHighway,1 the most advanced high-performance alternative for data transfer. The SpaceDataHighway fills a service gap for data relay capacities that is apparent to satellite operators already today and will become even more important in the future.

The SpaceDataHighway provides:

Rapid Tasking: With the SpaceDataHighway, satellite operators are able to stay in contact with their satellites for all orbits and for longer times during each orbit. This enables them to re-program their space assets in almost real time in case of time-critical or unforeseen data requirements, resulting in significantly improved reactivity and flexibility of satellite missions.

Near Real-Time Data: The SpaceDataHighway enables immediate broadband data transfer to the ground, reducing the delivery time of acquired data from several hours to just a few minutes.

Large Data Volume: The state-of-the-art laser communication technology on board the SpaceDataHighway facilitates data transmission at an unprecedented data rate of up to 1.8 gigabits per second. Combining this high-speed data transfer and the increased contact time results in a data transmission capacity of at least 50 terabits per day shared among all SpaceDataHighway users.

Effective Ground Operations: Routing the data through the SpaceDataHighway infrastructure reduces the need for an extensive ground station network. Moreover, data can be easily transferred to the usersí own archiving or processing facilities anywhere in the world.

Secure and Trusted Infrastructure: With the SpaceDataHighway, satellite operators can avoid sovereignty issues connected with routing data through foreign territory or infrastructure. The high availability and redundancy of the system, as well as the future system extensions, provide a safe and future-proof data transmission infrastructure.

Moving from Mapping to Monitoring

By providing unparalleled data transmission, the SpaceDataHighway has the potential to enhance a wide range of time-critical applications:

Humanitarian organizations and crisis intervention teams will benefit from timely provision of EO data over disaster areas, helping them to manage and coordinate rescue activities more efficiently and ultimately to save human lives.

Military and security operations will benefit from timely and substantiated ground knowledge to plan and conduct missions more effectively and safely and to enable the people in charge to react rapidly to new developments on the ground.

Maritime surveillance and ship detection governing bodies, public authorities and international organizations will benefit from timeliness of data provision. Near real-time delivery of vast quantities of data will support these users in monitoring their areas of interest and will enhance maritime domain awareness.

Authorities and organizations in charge of managing and protecting our environment and the environmental impact of human activities will be able to observe developments and changes over large areas in a more timely and effective manner. The SpaceDataHighway will provide them with EO data for wide-area monitoring of our natural resources, facilitating the timely identification of hotspots (e.g. illegal logging, water pollution) even in remote areas and providing substantiated information for the implementation of recovery actions.

With the number of satellites in Low Earth Orbit continuously growing, the capacity, particularly of the polar ground stations (which provide the most access time to polar-orbiting satellites) is increasingly stretched, leading to potential data transmission interference when several satellites are passing over the station at the same time.

Ultimately, the SpaceDataHighway supports a paradigm shift from the current quasi-static observation mode of operation to a much more dynamic real-time monitoring and surveillance of the earth.

Novel Technology Solution

The SpaceDataHighway uses geostationary satellites to provide two-way broadband data relay services among LEO satellites, spacecraft or UAVs and fixed ground stations.

Key System Features:

  • Bi-directional data transfer between EO satellites and ground stations:
    • Downlink of data from the LEO satellite / spacecraft / UAVs to the ground
    • Transfer of tasking messages between the ground and the spacecraft
  • Optical laser inter-satellite link (ISL) technology with up to 1.8 Gbps relay capabilities
  • Radiofrequency ISL with up to 300 Mbps relay capability
  • Scalability of solution for both forward and return links

The novel Laser Communication Terminal (LCT) that enables the high-speed, high-volume data transfer has been developed by the Astrium subsidiary TESAT. This innovative piece of equipment has already been successfully tested during in-orbit verification between the German radar satellite TerraSAR-X and the American NFIRE satellite.

Operations of the system commence with the launch of the first payload embarked on-board a commercial telecommunication satellite at the end of 2014. The system will then be enhanced with a second, dedicated satellite in 2015, providing an increased field of coverage and system redundancy. These two parts will form the initial core space infrastructure of the SpaceDataHighway, providing direct coverage for LEO satellites flying over Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Poles. The enhancement of the system with further spacecraft is already under planning, affording complete coverage of the earth and providing long-term system redundancy.

A Landmark Partnership

EDRS (European Data Relay System) - the SpaceDataHighway is developed and implemented within a Public Private Partnership between the European Space Agency and Astrium Services. Astrium holds the exclusive rights to sell data relay services to customers worldwide. See

The SpaceDataHighway is developed and implemented within the EDRS Public Private Partnership program between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Astrium Services. As Prime Program Manager, Astrium builds, owns, operates and co-finances the systemís infrastructure; Astrium also implements and provides the data transmission services to ESA and customers worldwide.

ESA funds the infrastructure development and is the anchor customer through the Sentinel satellite missions. The SpaceDataHighway provides data relay services for the Sentinel satellites within the European initiative Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), facilitating a rapid downlink of large volumes of imagery.

Astrium Services is in a unique position to implement and operate this revolutionary service, as the company can capitalize on its extensive expertise as operator of Earth Observation and telecom satellites, and as provider of Earth Observation and telecom satellite services.

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