Europe has started to roll out the first phase of its new space “data highway” Friday night through the launch of the first node in the network – a telecommunications satellite – from Kazakhstan.
The technology is hoped to provide information for faster monitoring of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. At present, it takes hours for pictures from observation satellites on Earth to be accessed on the ground.
Over a decade in development, the European Data Relay System (EDRS) of the European Space Agency (ESA) will collect data from low-orbiting satellites through laser and send it down to Earth in almost-real time, according to an official statement in December.
This is a far cry from current capabilities, where spacecraft can only transmit images once they pass over a receiving dish. They will retain visibility of this antenna usually for a mere 10 minutes during 90-minute tours around the world.
And it is no easy feat to get satellites to “talk” to each other through a narrow laser beam, said ESA project manager Michael Witting. "The difficulty is basically that you have to hit another satellite with your laser beam over a distance of over 40,000km, which is akin to hitting a two-euro coin over the distance of the Atlantic," he explained to a news agency.
The EDRS-A node – the system’s first building block and riding on a satellite of French commercial operator Eutelsat – left the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Proton rocket last Friday at 22.20 GMT. It was packed into an Antonov plane and flown to the country back in November.
The launch will only be declared successful once ESA officials confirm that the relay satellite made it on its orbital ride.
The drop-off high above the planet was poised to occur nine hours and 12 minutes once it lifted off. At the earliest, it would be at 0732 GMT Saturday, at which time ground controllers could analyze the mission status.
The EDRS will relay information on sea ice, oil spills or floods from Europe's Copernicus Earth observation project to users in Europe, Africa and the Atlantic, but its services will also be available to other paying customers.
In mid-2017, a second relay satellite, EDRS-C, will go up. Further platforms will follow and will be combined with commercial crafts to provide the round-the-clock laser connections.
The $545 million venture is a public-private partnership between the ESA and Airbus Defense and Space.