EDRS SpaceDataHighway Airbus ESA ARTES
Airbus is adding a third node to the European Data Relay System (EDRS), bringing coverage to the Asia-Pacific. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space

LONDON — Airbus will add a third node to the European Data Relay System (EDRS) constellation of satellites that use laser links to download live imagery from Earth-observation satellites and provide military communications that are virtually impossible to intercept.

The third node, EDRS-D, to be positioned in geostationary orbit above the Asia Pacific region in 2020 or 2021, will expand the constellation’s coverage to near global with some residual blind spots to remain over North America and the northern Pacific Ocean.

The advanced laser telecommunication terminal to be developed by Airbus’ subsidiary Tesat Spacecom will for the first time allow transmitting data between geostationary satellites via laser links. The two EDRS payloads in orbit today lack the ability to talk directly to each other.

“With EDRS-D, we will be able to retrieve data, for example, from a Sentinel satellite over Australia and backbone it via EDRS-D to EDRS-A and downlink it in Europe,” said Hughes Boulnois, who heads the EDRS project at Airbus.

Dubbed the SpaceDataHighway, or the optical fiber in the sky, EDRS can transmit up to 40 terabytes of data per day in near-real-time at a data rate of 1.8 Gbps — almost three times higher than the U.S. Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, which relies on Ku- and Ka-bands.

The first node of the constellation, EDRS-A, is hosted on Eutelsat-9B spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 9 degrees east. Launched in January 2016, the laser terminal started commercial operations in November, servicing the European Commission’s Sentinel-1A Earth-observation satellite, part of the Copernicus program.

OHB SE of Bremen, Germany, is building the second EDRS satellite, EDRS-C, with a launch expected by the end of this year.

“The European Commission is very happy about the performance of the service,” said Boulnois. “We have demonstrated that we can deliver up to 50 percent more data from Sentinel-1A than what is possible with the X-band channel.”

EDRS-C, to be positioned at 31 east, will provide redundancy over Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, and extend the constellation’s coverage out to Singapore. Unlike EDRS-A, EDRS-C will be a dedicated satellite operated by Airbus hosting an additional payload from Avanti, the U.K.-based telecoms provider.

Airbus is currently looking for a partner to host the newly announced Asia-Pacific EDRS-D node.

“Airbus is not such a strong player in Asia Pacific so we need a partner that would allow us to expand our reach,” Boulnois said. “Also, from the economical perspective it makes more sense to combine forces with an operator, bringing the EDRS capability and identifying strong synergies with their telecom mission.”

Airbus expects EDRS-D will bring about a step change in EDRS services. Both, EDRS-A and EDRS-C only have one laser communications terminal. For EDRS-D, Airbus plans at least three terminals, which will enable the node to serve multiple customers at the same time.

In addition to downlinking data from low-Earth-orbiting satellites, Airbus is also eyeing the military aviation and unmanned aerial vehicle communications market in the Asia Pacific region.

“This area, from the security perspective, has some challenges and we can see that our customers are asking for more resilience, more secure communication,” Boulnois said.

“We are currently performing demonstrations and in-flight tests with our A310 [Multi Role Tanker Transport] platform to demonstrate air-to-geostationary connectivity via laser links, and we know already that customers are really interested in the key features of this technology,” he said.

Those key features, Boulnois said, are low probability of intercept, low probability of detection, high bandwidth and “the fact that you cannot jam it.”

Boulnois hinted Airbus is already pondering a fourth node to cover North America.

The EDRS constellation, a public-private partnership between Airbus and the European Space Agency, is currently serving only one customer – the European Commission’s Copernicus Earth-observation program. The laser links enable data from the low-Earth-orbiting satellites to be accessed immediately upon acquisition, eliminating the waiting for the satellite to fly over its ground station. The four Sentinel satellites in orbit — 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B — all have laser communications terminals capable of using the SpaceDataHighway.  

Tereza Pultarova is a London-based science and technology journalist and video producer, covering European space developments for SpaceNews. A native of the Czech Republic, she has a bachelors degree in journalism from the Charles University,...