Windsurfer with space technology
Enabling & Support

Space technology helping maritime adventures

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ESA / Enabling & Support / Preparing for the Future / Space for Earth / Oceans

A combination of satellite technology and ESA's expertise in energy has given some ocean adventurers a competitive edge. Legendary windsurfer Raphaëla le Gouvello had space on her side when she took on an epic journey from Peru to Tahiti in 2003.

The 8,000km journey would have been much more perilous were it not for the assurance that her board would not sink. The custom-built 7.80-metre long windsurfer, complete with a watertight sleeping compartment, was equipped with a special airbag. Should the board turn over, pyrotechnic charges would inflate the bag to tip the board back the right way up.

The airbag could only be used in an emergency, because the pyrotechnics were powerful enough to cause damage to the board. Their original function was as part of the Ariane launcher family, where they are used to detach items from the launcher – such as exhausted fuel tanks or protective fairings – once they are no longer needed.

The windsurfing star also used solar power to keep the batteries she needed topped up. The batteries onboard were critical for navigation, communication and for providing drinking water through a special desalination system. The flexible solar cells, originally developed for European spacecraft, meant her 89-day journey was completed without once using fossil fuels. 

Whilst Raphaëla le Gouvello's test was one of strength and endurance, space technology has also been used by those who go to test their skills against each other. Competitive sailors like Marc Thiercelin and his sailing partner Eric Drouglazet, have used the experience of space when fitting out their yachts with efficient solar cells, lighter batteries and an intelligent power management system.

Space solar cells, batteries and power control for crossing the Atlantic
Space solar cells, batteries and power control for crossing the Atlantic

Discussions with ESA's Technology Transfer Programme proved that lower weight and more efficient power could be achieved with space technologies. Both could mean a crucial advantage in speed for the boat that used them. 

But space technology has also been used for safer competitive sailing. The production of ice maps using satellite data has helped yachts in the Southern Ocean to stay out of trouble. 

The yachts' own on-board radar can see larger icebergs, but other techniques are needed for those which are mostly submerged. Remote sensing specialists showed that icebergs typically have a stronger radar signal return than the open ocean. After initial processing to get rid of 'cluttering' effects from ocean waves the shape, number of pixels and intensity of signal returns can be analysed to differentiate between icebergs and ships, which can appear similar. 

For the Earth Observation specialists, identifying the icebergs was considered a success, whilst success for the sailors meant not having to see any icebergs at all!

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