European space station module Columbus will get a new data relay terminal to improve Internet connectivity at the orbital outpost

Faster Internet for space station with new antenna

A new Ka band data terminal that will allow astronauts at the International Space Station to enjoy HD video and improved connectivity is being developed by a UK company.

The 50cm in diameter parabolic antenna, operating in the highest satellite band, will serve the European space station module Columbus and will provide European astronauts with independent Internet access.

Expected to be delivered to the orbital outpost in 2017, the antenna is part of an £11m investment by the European Space Agency (Esa).

“Current communications capabilities available to European researchers on the International Space Station (ISS) are provided by Nasa,” said Peter Garland, director of Advanced Programs of the UK branch of global communications company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), which will develop and build the technology.

“Currently, the primary connection for video and data is through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) and time is allocated to Esa by an agreement with Nasa. The Ka Band Terminal, being provided by MDA, will allow European researchers using the Columbus module, to have an independent connection for high-speed video and data,” he said.

The terminal, together with a high-speed digital modem, an integrated radio frequency system and an interface to the Columbus on-board data system, will provide a 50Mbps downlink and 1 to 2Mbps uplink data transmission, increasing available bandwidth. Transmitting data through the European Data Relay System, a constellation of geostationary satellites, the technology will allow faster delivery of scientific information including high-definition imagery.

Garland said the project presents a specific set of challenges as it has to comply with stringent human spaceflight requirements.

“The whole terminal has to be designed to be compact enough to be mounted in a travel case that delivers the terminal to the ISS and that allows an astronaut to perform an installation during an extra vehicular activity,” Garland said.

The MDA equipment is based on heritage technology that has flown in space previously on commercial satellites. The tracking antenna was originally developed for the O3b satellite constellation. However, Garland said, the deployment on ISS will require MDA to address specific pointing requirements of the orbital research complex.

The firm hopes to adapt the technology in future for use on low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Thanks to the use of geostationary satellites – those in fixed positions above a certain spot on Earth – the Ku band communication links would allow remote-sensing spacecraft to send data to Earth continuously without the need to wait for when they are above a ground station.

“Currently, LEO satellites tend to collect data into memory storage and downlink this data in non-real-time during the next pass over a ground station,” Garland explained.  “This is satisfactory for applications that are of the survey type, where data latency is not a factor. However, increasingly in applications such as maritime surveillance large data latencies of this kind are not acceptable. In this case similar technology to that deployed on the ISS can provide a real-time connection to a LEO satellite.

The MDA contract was enabled by a recent investment of the UK Space Agency into Esa’s International Space Station programme.

After having joined the programme in 2012, the UK Space Agency contributed some £16m to the programme’s budget, allowing UK companies to compete for challenging space technology contracts.

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