ESA studies 'super' constellation

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The European Space Agency is to study integrating telecommunications, Earth observation and navigation satellites into one constellation that it claims could be more efficient, robust and affordable than several single-purpose networks.

The advantages ESA expects are a need for fewer ground stations, the sharing of multiple-mission operating costs, higher levels of redundancy and a reduced number of large, expensive satellites.

ESA envisages an incrementally deployed large constellation of small or micro low-Earth orbit satellites, each dedicated to one mission.

Their software would be upgradeable and all the spacecraft would be networked using inter-satellite links with internet routers and protocols, but with support from geostationary assets.

The service provided would be rapid delivery of Earth observation, navigation and telecommunications with a mix of the three as required.

The study will produce a roadmap to realise such a super-constellation. ESA says: "A technical study of the challenges for internet protocol routeing over satellites shall also be performed."

The work will lead to recommendations for an "ultimate system configuration", including not just satellite and orbit types, but overall network architecture and rationalised ground infrastructure and institutional, ownership and operational structures.

The study is being undertaken by the agency's Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems programme. Companies have until 31 July to submit bids for the euros 500,000 ($781,000) "Multi-purpose constellations" project that will define the system concepts and strategic options.