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ISS gets “sovereign” European network powered by space laser broadband network

The EDRS C Satellite that underpins part of the SpaceDataHighway

The EDRS C Satellite that underpins part of the SpaceDataHighway. Credit: Airbus

Installing the COLKa terminal on the International Space Station (ISS) was not like plugging in a router. It took a team of astronauts, a spacewalk and nearly seven hours to get four of its six cables plumbed in to the low earth orbit station.

Now, one year after that initial installation began, the system, which was built to boost communications bandwidth between ground stations and permanent European research facility on the ISS, is set to start relaying data home.

COLKa (strictly the “Columbus Ka-band Terminal”) operates in the satellite Ka band (which operates from 17.7GHz on the downlink and to 30.6GHz on the uplink – it is both cheaper and faster than the well-established Ku-band.)

See also: 5G in space: Lockheed Martin, Omnispace eye satellite-based network for commercial, government use

Designed and developed by MDA’s UK division and funded in part by the UK Space Agency, it was described last year as the “first major industrial contribution from the UK to the ISS.” The terminal will make use of Airbus’s laser-powered broadband “SpaceDataHighway” to relay space-born experiment data between the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Colombus laboratory and a range of ground stations including the UK’s Harwell Campus in close to real-time.

What is the SpaceDataHighway?

As Airbus put it on January 17, COLKa will give the ESA “a direct and sovereign access to the ISS, thus increasing the operational flexibility allowing more astronauts, scientists and researchers to benefit from a direct link with Europe. This will also enable ESA to create slots for ad-hoc experiment access and interaction with European astronauts.”

It will be underpinned by the SpaceDataHighway, a public-private partnership between the ESA and Airbus that uses lasers to transfer data at up to 1.8 Gbps, with transmit volumes of up to 40 terabytes per day. The partners describe it as having “high bandwidth spectrum availability, low probability of intercept/detection and resistance to jamming.”

The SpaceDataHighway supports what the partnership describes as “faster and longer access to air and space assets, securely transferring information in hostile electronic warfare environments, ensuring stealth communications and allowing transferring large volumes of data generated by powerful sensors or to enable the combat cloud concept” with user applications including military communications; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); open ocean surveillance; environmental and climate change monitoring; and emergency response.

It is underpinned by two geostationary satellites that sit some 36,000km from the earth’s surface.

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