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Germany takes the lead on European data relay system

Posted: April 13, 2011

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A German aerospace contractor received approval Wednesday to begin designing a European data relay satellite to promptly transmit images of Earth from orbiting spacecraft back to ground stations.

Artist's concept of the European Data Relay Satellite system. Credit: ESA
The contract signed Wednesday between OHB System AG and Astrium Services is worth 7.4 million euros, or $10.7 million. The agreement gives OHB System authority to proceed with designing a satellite to fly in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth.

The European Data Relay Satellite system will feature at least one dedicated spacecraft and a piggyback communications package to fly on a commercial broadcasting satellite.

OHB System will design and build the standalone EDRS platform in Bremen, Germany.

Both spacecraft will use laser optical communications instruments to transmit up to 1.8 megabytes per second of data across distances of up to 25,000 miles, according to OHB System. The laser terminals will be built by Tesat-Spacecom, another German company.

Germany is supplying the majority of the funding for the EDRS system. Astrium Services is overseeing its development.

The piggyback communications system should be launched in 2014 and the OHB System spacecraft will be ready for operations by 2016.

The EDRS satellite will be based on OHB System's Small GEO spacecraft bus, a new development funded under a public-private partnership with the European Space Agency.

Managed by the European Commission, the EDRS system will facilitate more rapid recovery of Earth observation imagery from Europe's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES, program. The GMES system will consist of a fleet of Sentinel satellites to provide comprehensive remote sensing data to monitor environmental changes, natural disasters and aid security efforts.

With the help of the EDRS system, the Sentinels could immediately send back imagery instead of waiting for up to hours before flying over a fixed ground communications site.

It is the same concept NASA uses for its Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, a network of spacecraft to communicate with U.S. satellites in low Earth orbit and rockets ascending into space.

OHB System expects its dedicated EDRS satellite will be worth 150 million euros, or $217 million, when the company receives additional contracts.

ESA's experimental Artemis satellite is a pathfinder for the laser communications system to be employed by EDRS, but Artemis was launched in 2001 and is nearing the end of its life.