While Paris air show eyes are naturally fixed on the aircraft and systems on static display or flying daily overhead, much of the action that helps give the "aerospace" industry its name will be well out of sight. That, of course, is the "space" part - and some of the most advanced projects in the pipeline are being detailed at Le Bourget.

Human-crewed missions naturally attract much attention - and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano is still getting used to microgravity following his 29 May arrival at the International Space Station - but the value of spaceflight is probably best realised in the capabilities of telecommunications and Earth observation satellites.

The European Space Agency will be presenting two of its newest projects at Paris, beginning with Europe's latest - and largest - telecommunications satellite, Alphasat. Scheduled for an Ariane 5 launch from Europe's spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana in July, the 6,000kg Alphasat was built in partnership between ESA and Inmarsat by Astrium. The spacecraft is the first to use Alphabus, the new European high-power telecommunications platform.

The project, by Astrium and Thales Alenia Space under a joint contract from ESA and the French space agency, CNES, is a coordinated European response to the increased market demand for larger telecommunication payloads; commercial payload power of up to 18kW is now available, but that will be extended to 22kW.

Alphasat carries a new generation of advanced geomobile communications payload in L-band that will augment Inmarsat's Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, enabling communications across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East with increased capacity.

It also carries four technology demonstration payloads developed through ESA's Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems programme. One is an advanced laser terminal providing optical communications at 2.8 Gbit/s from Earth observation satellites in low-Earth orbit to a geostationary orbit. A Ka-band transmitter sends the data to a ground station.

A second demonstration payload will test Q- and V-band frequencies as the basis of future applications, and run experiments to measure the effects of Earth's atmosphere on radio waves in the band.A sensor with active pixel detector is also included, to gain early flight experience on this new product. The sensor is highly radiation-resistant, and so suitable for geostationary deployment, and capable of very accurate and autonomous attitude acquisition.

Alphasat will also test electronic components and solid-state materials in the radiation environment of geostationary orbit.ESA will also present its Biomass Earth observation satellite concept, along with results from its in-orbit "Earth Explorer" missions. Three missions currently in orbit are measuring Earth's cryosphere - or areas of solid ice - gravity, soil moisture and ocean salinity. Future missions will look at the magnetic field, wind and how clouds and aerosols affect the radiation budget.

The Biomass mission, selected in May and earmarked for launch in 2020, is being designed to answer what ESA justifiably regards as one of the most fundamental questions in our understanding of the land component in the Earth system: what is the state of our forests and how are they changing?

The mission's two main scientific objectives are to measure the distribution of above-ground biomass in the world's forests and to measure annual changes in this stock.

The first objective will improve the accuracy of estimates of the sources and sinks of carbon attributed to changes in forest cover by measuring changes in above-ground biomass, including subtle changes resulting from forest degradation and growth. The spacecraft's instrument package of polarimetric, interferometric P-band synthetic aperture radar will be able to measure biomass and forest height at a resolution of 200m and forest disturbances at a resolution of 50m.

One of ESA's key objectives is to improve our relatively poor understanding of forest condition in tropical forests, and their role in Earth's carbon cycle and in climate change.

Measurements made by Biomass should also help map the elevation of Earth's terrain under dense vegetation, by yielding information on subsurface geology and allowing the estimation of glacier and ice-sheet velocities.

But if 2020 and seasonal changes in vegetation seem far-removed from events today, it is worth noting that Earth observation capabilities extend far beyond "black" spy satellites and scientific missions.

Earlier this month, ESA hosted a "Big Data from Space" conference at its centre in Frascati, Italy, near Rome, to address the barriers hampering effective use of large volumes of Earth observation data.Speed of data transmission, it seems, is rapidly ceasing to be one of those barriers. To illustrate that point, DMCii - the imagery distribution company formed by small satellites maker Surrey Satellite Technology to manage pictures gathered by its own and customer satellites orbiting in the Disaster Monitoring Constellation - acquired an image of Rome and made it available to delegates within just 11min.

As the D in DMC suggests, speed matters. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, emergency workers on the ground got their first useful pictures of the area from NigeriaSat-1. A similar coup was struck in May 2011, when another DMC unit, the Spanish-owned Deimos-1, imaged the floods then ravaging the Mississippi River area.

Or, for a more recent example of how investment in Earth observation satellites for civil use provides very tangible returns, consider the two images shown here of Moore, Oklahoma - taken before and after the 20 May 2013 tornado cut a swathe through the town, killing 24 people and injuring nearly 300.

Check out the latest news and views from this year's Paris air show, including:

Finally, our new-look iFDN editions will contain exclusive footage from Paris 2013. Find out more

Source: Flight Daily News