News from the 64th International Astronautical Congress | Norway Intent on Self-sufficiency in Space-based AIS

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BEIJING — The Norwegian government is pursuing development of its own operational space-based ship-monitoring system and has scheduled the launch of two more satellites within the next three years to accompany the first spacecraft launched in 2010.

Shrugging off overlapping commercial and European programs to provide Automatic Identification System (AIS) service from satellites as either too costly or not directly suited to its needs, Norway expects to satisfy its Arctic ship-identification needs with its own satellite resources.

Norwegian authorities believe that despite their modest budget they can provide, on their own, all the maritime traffic information they need with their own small AIS satellites, coupled with data from commercial and government-owned synthetic aperture radar satellites.

Addressing the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, Norwegian Space Agency Director-General Bo N. Andersen said Norway is taking full advantage of the revolution in small-satellite capability and pricing to develop its AIS capacity.

In an interview, Andersen said the current cost of commercial AIS services, provided by exactEarth of Canada and Orbcomm of the United States, is such that Norway would not be saving much money by outsourcing its AIS requirements.

Andersen said Norway’s first AIS satellite, launched in 2010, cost about 4 million euros ($5.4 million). The second, which cost 2 million euros, is completed and awaiting launch in February as one of several co-passengers on a Russian Soyuz rocket. The third, under construction, is expected to cost 1.8 million euros, he said.

“Norway plans to be self-sufficient with space-based AIS measurements until 2020” with just the investments made to date, Andersen said, suggesting that Norwegian authorities are likely to continue launching satellites to maintain the system given the trend toward lower-cost small spacecraft.

Norway earlier mounted an AIS terminal on the international space station through the 20-nation European Space Agency, which is a space station partner.

Given the vast territory that Norway needs to monitor, paying for a full commercial AIS service presents few advantages compared with building its own system.

The number of ships that must be tracked in Arctic waters is growing but remains small relative to high-traffic shipping lanes, meaning Norway does not need the rapid-update surveillance service that exactEarth and Orbcomm are developing with their constellations of satellites. Norway’s northern latitude means polar-orbiting spacecraft overfly the region 14 times a day, and that is enough.

Andersen said that so far in 2013, Norwegian authorities have not captured a single illegal fishing vessel in their territorial waters, a fact that Andersen ascribed in part to the AIS service’s deterrent effect when combined with radar satellite data.

International Maritime Organization regulations require commercial ships weighing more than 300,000 kilograms, and all commercial passenger ships, to carry AIS transmitters beaming information on ship identity, speed and heading. The AIS signals are captured by ground-based receivers when the ships are near shore, but vessels in the open ocean, beyond the horizon of terrestrial antennas, must relay their signals via satellite. 

This requirement is driving the push to deploy AIS-capable satellites.

Riding on the same Russian Soyuz rocket, now delayed to late February, will be Canada’s Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite, M3MSat, for which Canada’s Com Dev is the prime contractor.

Nathan Orr of the Space Flight Laboratory said the 80-kilogram M3MSat, which carries research payloads for the Canadian government in addition to its AIS terminal, will be the most sophisticated AIS payload yet operated by Cambridge, Ontario-based exactEarth.

AIS receivers are also part of the payload planned for the Canadian government’s three next-generation Radarsat synthetic aperture radar Earth observation satellites.

Rochelle Park, N.J.-based Orbcomm is awaiting the launch of its 17-satelllite second-generation constellation early next year aboard two newly designed Falcon 9 rockets from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif.

The European Space Agency’s member governments in November 2012 rejected the agency’s proposal for full-scale development of an AIS capability, but ESA and the European Maritime Safety Agency continue to look at possible AIS development scenarios.