ESA relay satellite system to spark European and Canadian leadership

Packed conference room at ESA's EDRS Workshop, Geneva
4 December 2009

More than a hundred senior managers and experts from European space industry, national agencies and ESA packed a Geneva conference room earlier this week to learn about the commercial opportunities offered by ESA's planned data relay satellite system.

The strong attendance from Europe and Canada's space community highlights the growing expectations by industry and potential customers for the planned European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS) system. Once in operation, EDRS will provide exceptionally high-speed data relay capabilities to other satellites, vastly improving services such as Earth imaging, disaster response and environmental monitoring.

"Europe is the only space power that lacks a data relay capability. The requirements for navigation, environmental monitoring and security need this ability, and there is solid interest in building this system," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General, who spoke to the gathering via video.

The EDRS system will be developed as a so-called 'public-private partnership' (PPP), an innovative structure in which ESA leads the creation of the initial system and infrastructure that is later taken over for full exploitation and further development by a commercial partner. Hence the intense interest from space industry at this week's EDRS Workshop, organised by ESA's Telecoms directorate and co-sponsored by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the Swiss Space office.

EDRS Workshop well attended by industry & organisations

It will be a strategic European 'network in the sky' that can be be further enhanced with new capabilities in the future.

The EDRS Workshop, 1-2 December, was well attended by experts from industry in numerous ESA Member States, Canada, national space agencies and government ministries, as well as the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat).

"Autonomous access to space for Europe not only means launchers - it also means communication. We would like to support EDRS fully and we hope other Member States will join us," said Prof. Dr Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Chairman of the Executive Board of DLR, who also spoke to attendees by video.

EDRS will boost European-developed technology and make use of a cutting-edge inter-satellite laser communication system as well as new data dissemination infrastructure on the ground.

Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, explained that the Agency's Artemis relay satellite, launched in 2001 as a technology demonstrator, has already successfully completed thousands of optical communication links with satellites and aircraft.

"We have a significant background in Europe in this field and in particular at ESA. We believe that these communication means will become strategic features of many space missions in the future," she said.

EDRS: high-speed data from LEO to ground

European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS) system

At its core, the EDRS system will enable satellites in low-Earth orbits (LEO), which are usually only able to communicate directly with a ground station for just a few minutes per orbit, to send their data almost continuously via laser link up to receivers mounted on spacecraft in geostationary orbit. These are in permanent view of ground stations, so the data can be sent down at high speed and distributed to end-users.

This architecture vastly improves existing space applications and enables new services. For example, when a forest fire is first spotted, a satellite could be tasked to acquire images and send the data via EDRS quickly to the ground, where maps could be generated within just a few hours. This is very difficult with current systems.

The EDRS system will also provide graduated levels of commercial service by offering lower-speed data transfer via traditional Ka-band radio links, at lower cost, in addition to the high-speed optical links.

Intense industry interest

Three commercial teams have expressed strong interest in joining ESA in the proposed EDRS public-private partnership: Astrium, Eutelsat and Telespazio.

EDRS is fundamental for addressing the growing data requirements of the new space era. There is no other way to do it.

Senior managers from all three made cornerstone presentations to the Workshop, providing details on their current plans for technical, operational and commercial feasibility. The trio currently have contracts from ESA to complete next-phase studies, which should provide full details on how EDRS could be implemented.

"EDRS is fundamental for addressing the growing data requirements of the new space era. There is no other way to do it," said Malcolm Peto, CEO for Telecom at Astrium Services.

Hector Fenech, Head of the Future Satellite Systems Group at Eutelsat, echoed Peto's comments, adding: "EDRS is an opportunity to open new markets. If you want to send very high data rates at low latency from low-Earth orbit to the ground, I don't think there are possibilities other than EDRS."

The third potential PPP partner, Telespazio, has reached similar conclusions: "The need for data relay services is real and concrete for Europe and for its presence as a major space player," said Marco Brancati, Telespazio's Vice President for Networks and Connectivity.

Delegates presenting at ESA's EDRS Workshop, Geneva

ESA's Guido Levrini, head of the Agency's GMES satellite programme - confirmed as the crucial first customer for EDRS data relay services - told participants: "GMES is the anchor customer for EDRS; we are committed to be a long-term user of the EDRS system. This is a golden opportunity for Europe and we would be sadly remiss if we don't seize the opportunity to establish global leadership."

The Workshop ended with a strong endorsement by industrial stakeholders, who were able to identify opportunities for the potential PPP service provider, technology vendors and future EDRS customers - especially Earth observation (EO) mission operators; currently, the data generated by the global EO fleet is doubling every 7 years.

EDRS to enable new operational services in a PPP framework

ESA's Telecoms Director Vaissiere summed up the Workshop, emphasising that EDRS is expected to enable new operational services for EO and other satellite operators, unprecedented near-real-time and high-speed data transfer capabilities from LEO to ground, and industrial opportunities for a number of new European products and technologies.

"For EDRS, the PPP structure will bring operational success as well as cost and schedule control. It will be a strategic European 'network in the sky' that can be be further enhanced with new capabilities in the future," she concluded.

The final open competition for the PPP partner for EDRS is expected in the first half of 2010.

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