Coordinating radio waves that carry space data
One of the global space community’s longest-running cooperative forums met in Europe earlier this month, highlighting ESA’s leadership role in coordinating use of the radio waves without which no mission can succeed.
For decades, ESA has served as permanent executive secretary of the Space Frequency Coordination Group (SFCG), a little-known technical body charged with coordinating and managing the radio waves used for communication by all space-faring organisations.
For 32 years, the SFCG has worked to ensure that radio frequencies are wisely and fairly used – work that is far more important than the committee’s arcane technical name would suggest.
“There are only a finite range of radio frequencies that can be used by spacecraft and satellites to communicate between each other and back to ground stations on Earth,” says Edoardo Marelli, Head of ESA’s Frequency Management Office.
Coordinating a limited natural resource
“The role of the SFCG is to coordinate the frequencies allocated to civil spaceflight use, and to optimise the benefits of this precious and very limited natural resource.”
The SFCG’s 29 regular members encompass all the largest and most significant space agencies, including NASA, ESA, national European space agencies, Eumetsat, NOAA and national agencies from Russia, China and 14 other nations.
Long-running international space cooperation
Institutional observer members include the International Telecommunication Union and the World Meteorological Organisation.
“SFCG was started by ESA and the French space agency 32 years ago, and it’s one of the most mature and longest-running examples of international cooperation in space,” says Enrico Vassallo, responsible for frequency coordination at ESA’s ESOC Establishment.
“It’s up to ESA the set the agenda, manage issues and, when necessary, break ties to ensure that the annual meetings produce decisions and results that enable all operators to build and fly their missions.”
This year’s intensive seven-day meeting was hosted by ESA at ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany, and ended on 20 June.
Delegates agreed a number of important issues, including coordinating radio frequencies for ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission, planned for launch in 2017, and identifying the bands to be used for future exploration missions around, or on, the Moon.
Boosting the value of space investment
By cooperating in the SFCG, all space agencies gain the benefits of reducing the risk of interference to their missions, protecting the frequency bands allocated to space services from other spectrum users and creating strong opportunities for cross-support and interoperability.
“And that boosts return on space investment for everyone,” says Enrico.
Manfred Warhaut, Head of Mission operations at ESA, explains that access to space is not only a matter of developing launchers.
“It also requires well-managed radio frequencies for communication. Without that, no one would fly any missions at all.”