Space paves the way for digital society

  • The 5th National Conference 'Satellite Communications in Germany' will be held in Bonn on 28 and 29 March 2017.
  • More than 300 experts from the areas of science, industry, government and administration will discuss the opportunities and challenges faced by the sector in answer to the question "Satellite communications – will everything be different tomorrow?"
  • The conference will focus on the subjects of digitalisation, Industry 4.0, data transmission, data security, the challenges of the telecommunications market and New Space, as well as worldwide Internet access through mega-constellations.

Our information society is facing a challenge – steadily growing data volumes must be transferred across the globe at faster and faster speeds in order to keep up with the technical advancements of our time. "Satellites provide us with access to ever-faster Internet with extremely high data rates. Communications technology steers industry 4.0, Big Data and the mobility of the future. But meteorologists, authorities and emergency services also rely on weather, climate and Earth observation data. Without communications satellites this would not be possible," says Gerd Gruppe, Executive Board Member responsible for the Space Administration at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), highlighting the importance of satellite communications. But how can these data volumes continue to be securely transmitted across the world in the future? This and other questions will be addressed by the more than 300 participants of the 5th National Conference 'Satellite Communications in Germany'.

Light instead of radio waves – rapid data transmission by laser

Until now, data has been transmitted to Earth in the 'traditional' manner – via radio waves. However, radio frequencies are limited and existing capacities must be duly allocated. In view of growing data traffic, the bandwidth limit will soon be reached. "One solution to this data bottleneck is to use light waves to transmit data. Germany is a global leader in this field. Eleven of these Laser Communication Terminals (LCTs) will soon be in orbit," stresses Gruppe. Tesat Spacecom, a company from Baden-Württemberg, builds these LCTs, which are also part of Europe’s new data highway in space: In the 'European Data Relay System' (EDRS), satellites transfer data in real time by laser to relay hubs in space and from there to ground stations. "In less than 20 minutes, high-resolution images from Earth observation satellites in the European Sentinel programme can be made available to the end user. Without data relay via EDRS and LCT this would be inconceivable," explains Roland Wattenbach, Head of Satellite Communications at the DLR Space Administration. Work is now underway on the miniaturisation of the laser technology, so that it can also be deployed on mini-satellites in near-earth orbit. The first terminals will soon be in space. German companies around the world are active in this field too.

SmallGEO – Germany returns to the telecommunications satellite market

With the launch of the new SmallGEO satellite platform in the form of the telecommunications satellite Hispasat 36W-1 on 28 January 2017, Germany has made a comeback in the telecommunications satellite market after a 24-year absence. The first satellite of this platform largely developed and built in Germany is part of the SmallGEO programme run by the European Space Agency (ESA) for relatively light geostationary satellites that orbit Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres and weigh approximately three tons – instead of the standard six or eight. Germany is the largest contributor and has invested approximately 150 million euro (42.5 percent of the total budget) in the development of the platform and the payload. The launch of the first SmallGEO satellite, which was constructed at OHB System AG in Bremen, will be followed by others – EDRS-C, for instance, will supplement the existing commercial relay satellites at the beginning of 2018. Further development towards a fully electrically operated system, called ELECTRA, has been commissioned and the development of the national communications satellite 'Heinrich Hertz' in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry of Defence will begin in 2017. In addition, OHB System AG has been commissioned to provide three Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) weather satellites on the basis of the SmallGEO platform.

New Space – The courage to take a risk is a must

Under the question "Will everything be different tomorrow?", the conference in Bonn will also take a look into the future – Europe is still the global export champion for aerospace technology and services. Several major satellite service providers are located here. "New Space offers many opportunities, but also requires more courage to take risks. In principle, however, this is also the case in the European space industry. It must also take into account new applications and find new, faster routes," explains Gruppe. A great deal of time still goes by between idea and finished product. Traditional modes of thought and action from the time when aerospace mainly consisted of the construction of state-financed research probes stands in the way of quick access to the market – obstacles include technical perfectionism, adherence to restrictive standards and state regulations. However, as the study 'New Space – business models at the interface between space and the digital economy' commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy puts it, many paradigm shifts are currently underway, which require faster responses. A key factor here is the shift from traditional television to Internet TV. According to the study, the future will be digital and New Space is directly tied to this drive towards digitalisation.

Mega-constellations – Fast Internet all over the world

Fast Internet has also been recognised as a priority in Europe: Airbus Defence & Space and OneWeb, a US company, have set up a joint venture to supply the entire world with fast Internet from low Earth orbit starting in 2018. Nine hundred satellites will be built for this – up to 15 per week. Of these 900, 648 will always be active, the remainder will serve as substitutes. Together, these satellites form a so-called mega-constellation that, according to OneWeb, will later be expanded by another 2000 satellites. Each satellite weighs less than 150 kilograms. In addition to Airbus, the Japanese telecommunications and software giant Softbank has joined the project with an investment of 1.2 billion US dollars.