International Space Station gets connected on SpaceDataHighway

SpaceDataHighway deploys space laser communications to increase the operational flexibility of ISS, allowing more astronauts, scientists and researchers to benefit from a direct link with Europe

Successful implementations of satellite broadband are increasingly being found across all corners of the Earth, and now they are being deployed in corners above the planet, with the latest example being the SpaceDataHighway (SDH) from Airbus providing broadband connectivity services between the International Space Station (ISS) and Earth.

Airbus said the SDH service represents an order of magnitude change in the speed of space communications, using laser technology and satellites in geostationary Earth orbit to deliver unique and secure data transfer services in real time.

A public-private partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus, the SDH service utilises the Airbus owned and operated European Data Relay System (EDRS) laser communication infrastructure to provide high-bandwidth capability for both low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and airborne platforms. SDH is designed to enable users to transfer data – such as including imagery, video and voice – from the LEO satellites and airborne platforms by means of laser communications via the EDRS-A and EDRS-C geostationary satellites to receiving ground stations in Europe.

The platform supports high-volume data transfer from Earth observation satellites, airborne platforms and other users at a data rate of 1.8Gbps, with transmit volumes of up to 40TB (terabytes) per day. in addition to high-bandwidth spectrum availability, SDH is said to offer low-probability of intercept/detection and resistance to jamming, ensuring high-volume data transfers beyond line-of-sight (BLOS).

Said to be the world’s first laser communication geostationary constellation, the system has achieved more than 50,000 successful laser connections within the first five years of routine operations. Its satellites can connect to ISS as well as low-orbiting observation satellites at a distance of up to 45,000km.

From its position in geostationary orbit, the SDH system relays in near real-time to Earth the collected data, a process that Airbus said would normally take several hours. It can enable the quantity of image and video data transmitted by observation satellites to be greatly increased and their mission plan can be reprogrammed at any time and in just a few minutes.

Other typical user applications include military communications; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); open ocean surveillance; environmental and climate change monitoring; and emergency response.

With the Columbus Ka-band (ColKa) terminal now installed and fully tested onboard the ISS, an SDH satellite will start to relay data via a bi-directional link in real time between the ISS Columbus Laboratory and the Columbus Control Centre located at the German Aerospace Centre DLR near Munich, as well as research centres across Europe.

The ColKa data service provision has been contracted between ESA and Airbus. As part of this new SDH service, Airbus has adapted its Ka-band inter-satellite link to ensure data will be channelled via the ground station at the Harwell Campus in the UK.

Combining the capabilities of the SDH and the ColKa terminal, Airbus is confident that the ESA will benefit from direct and sovereign access to the ISS, thus increasing the operational flexibility allowing more astronauts, scientists and researchers to benefit from a direct link with Europe. This will also enable ESA to create slots for ad hoc experiment access and interaction with European astronauts.

With its SDH, Airbus is already serving four Copernicus Sentinel satellites on a daily basis and continues to expand its services to more customers. Pleiades Neo, Airbus’s optical Earth observation constellation with four 30cm resolution satellites, will be the next satellites to benefit from SDH’s infrastructure and will further optimise mission reactivity providing near real-time data delivery and reactive tasking capabilities.

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