FRANKFURT • Europe has launched the first part of a new space "data highway" that will pave the way for faster monitoring of natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.
The first building block of the European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS), the EDRS-A node is a "big data highway" that costs nearly €500 million (S$785 million) and will harness new laser-based communications technology.
The EDRS will improve transmission of large amounts of data such as pictures and radar images from satellites in orbit to Earth because they will no longer have to wait for a ground station on Earth to come into view.
The EDRS-A node, riding piggyback on a Eutelsat communications satellite, was blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on board a Proton rocket on Friday.
The node, which is to orbit Earth at an altitude of about 36,000km, houses a laser terminal that works much like an autonomous telescope capable of locking on to moving targets on Earth.
It will send data to and from Earth or between satellites at a rate of 1.8 gigabits a second, which is about the same as sending all the data that could be printed in a 1m-long shelf of books in one second, according to standard industry measures.
The EDRS will relay data on sea ice, oil spills or floods from Europe's Copernicus Earth observation project to users in Europe, Africa and the Atlantic area, but its services will also be available to other paying customers.
The EDRS is a public-private partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Defence and Space.
Pairing EDRS-A with the Eutelsat 9B satellite, which will beam TV images to Europe, cuts down on costs for both satellite operator Eutelsat and the ESA as they share the expenses of the launch and joint systems. A second satellite, EDRS-C, is to be launched in the middle of next year.
Eventually, others could follow, and they could also be coupled with commercial craft.
"We are open to pairing a third EDRS payload with a future Eutelsat satellite," said Eutelsat chief technical officer Yohann Leroy.