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Europe's space-based, laser-powered data highway passes early test


FRANKFURT – A European satellite beamed images to earth using new laser-based communications technology on Friday, opening the way for uninterrupted and near instantaneous viewing of natural disasters being sent to governments and relief agencies.

The images were a test of a 450 million euro ($562 million) space data highway being constructed. Called European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS), it will allow faster and more secure transmission of large amounts of data, such as pictures and radar images, to and from earth.

It is seen as particularly useful for monitoring flood and earthquake damage in real time.

“Currently, a satellite downloads the data that it acquires whenever it is within view of one of four ground stations on earth,” Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Earth Observation Program Planning & Coordination Service, told Reuters ahead of Friday’s transmission.

“That means there can be periods of 45 to 90 minutes from the visibility of one station to another,” he said.

Once completed, EDRS will do away with such blind spots by using two satellites – to be launched in 2015 and 2016 and equipped with laser technology – to send data to and from Earth or between satellites at a rate of 1.8 Gigabits per second.

That is about equivalent to sending all the data that could be printed in a one-meter long shelf of books in one second, according to generally accepted industry measures.

EDRS will also offer encryption for more secure transmissions, and will make Europe less dependent on ground stations abroad to access satellite data.

In Friday’s transmission, a satellite launched as part of Europe’s Copernicus project in April, Sentinel-1a, sent images across a distance of 36,000 kms (22,369 miles) to Inmarsat’s communications satellite Alphasat, which relayed the signal to earth.

The demonstration of the new technology is key to getting the European Commission’s go-ahead for the space agency to sign an agreement making Airbus unit Astrium the operator of EDRS ahead of a Dec. 22 deadline.

EDRS will later relay data on sea ice, oil spills or floods from the multi-billion euro Copernicus earth observation project, but its services will also be available to other paying customers. — Reuters