ESA Makes Research Investment in Next-generation Inmarsat System

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LIVERPOOL, England – The European Space Agency, continuing in its relatively new role as pollinator of near-term satellite telecommunications technology, on July 16 contracted with Inmarsat to conduct research on a next-generation Inmarsat mobile communications system.

London-based Inmarsat said the work would include a broad overview of what would be an Inmarsat-6 generation of services, including low-orbiting satellite constellations, inter-satellite laser-optical communications and laser communications between satellites and platforms.

Coming only weeks after the 22-nation ESA signed cost-sharing agreements for new-generation satellite telecommunications technologies with Eutelsat of Paris and – in a first – Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington. ESA also signed a separate accord with Inmarsat on improved air traffic management.

The agreements were announced at the U.K. Space Conference here.

Inmarsat operates a fleet of L-band satellites providing communications to maritime, air and land-based platforms. For its fifth-generation satellites, Inmarsat is moving to the higher-frequency Ka-band but has no intention of abandoning L-band for its core service.

Enter ICE, the Inmarsat Communications Evolution project, which is starting out with 4 million euros ($4.4 million) in research and development funding, with equal contributions from ESA and Inmarsat.

Inmarsat Chief Technology Officer Michele Franci said ICE focuses on a wide array of possible technologies for the Inmarsat 6 generation of L-band satellites, especially the air interface and waveforms to be used.

ICE is part of ESA’s Artes 33 telecommunications research program designed to make European companies more competitive in the global market. The ICE contract was signed by Franci and ESA’s director of telecommunications, Magali Vaissiere.

Optical ESA programs like ICE, in which individual governments contribute whatever amount they want, force ESA and its partners, in this case Inmarsat, to steer program work to companies located in the supporting nations.

For ICE, Airbus Defence and Space’s facilities in Britain, France and Italy will be given the early work based on those nations’ contributions.

But Ruag of Switzerland will lead the research on future optical technologies. In the past, Ruag has been a subcontractor to Tesat of Germany for laser communications terminals. But because Germany elected not to take part in ICE, Ruag will be the lead contributor for this part of the contract.

Franci said one focus for optical terminals is to dramatically reduce their mass and their cost – no simple matter given the limited numbers of units required of the market.

Franci said that, at this point, Inmarsat is leaving no options unexamined, including the possible use of drones and high-altitude aircraft as platforms in addition to satellites in both low and high orbits.

The second public-private partnership with Inmarsat, this time with each side investing 7.6 million euros, is part of the European Union’s Single European Skies and Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) program with Europe’s air traffic authority, Eurocontrol.

ESA’s Iris Precursor program, whose design phase is now completed, will provide a satellite overlay of existing VHF-frequency terrestrial communications for air-traffic management.

Inmarsat leads an Iris team of 16 companies from eight nations. By 2018, an Iris precursor product will enable the start of more-precise flight tracking by delivering four-dimensional flight path control measured by improved latitude, longitude, altitude and time precision.

Inmarsat Chief Operating Officer Ruy Pinto pointed to European Union studies suggesting that Europe’s air-traffic management sector could save some 4 billion euros per year by adopting SESAR-generated improvements in the routing of flights.