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Megaconstellations of Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites have recently become a hot topic in the satellite industry, with several initiatives announced. They involve ambitious development plans that require the launch of hundreds or even thousands of inexpensive satellites by the end of the decade. This will require a high level of innovation across many aspects of system development, including the application of technologies, techniques and production capabilities from outside the traditional space sector.
Responding to these fast-moving developments, ESA’s Telecommunications and Integrated Applications (TIA) directorate organised the Megaconstellations Industry Information Day on 6 October, 2015. The event took place at ESTEC (ESA's facility in the Netherlands) and was attended by 130 representatives from European and Canadian space industry plus delegates from participating Member States.
The morning plenary session gave attendees an overview of TIA’s Megaconstellations Workplan, while the later sessions were devoted to bilateral meetings between industry representatives and TIA staff attended by more than 90 participants. Emphasis throughout was on how ESA can support industry in their efforts to participate in the various megaconstellation initiatives that have been announced around the world.
A key aspect of the event was the opportunity for TIA to receive feedback on its Workplan, particularly with regard to TIA’s efforts to “fast-track” the proposal process, which is critical in view of the speed of developments related to megaconstellations.
Even as TIA has the short-term needs of the industry in mind, it is also thinking further ahead. The ARTES 3-4 programme element addresses short-term product development, while ARTES 5.2 is dedicated to validating medium-term technology development and ARTES 1 encompasses long-term strategic matters. Planned activities related to megaconstellations will be supported in all of these ARTES elements.
“The impressive turnout made it quite clear: megaconstellations are likely to have far-reaching consequences for our space industries,” said the organiser of the event, Cyril Michel, ESA Megaconstellations Opportunity Manager. “The opportunities are huge and so are the technical challenges and risks. The industry would go from building about twenty commercial GEO satellites per year, to mass production of possibly thousands of smaller satellites. Even companies that have already been contracted for elements of the new systems will have to achieve some radical technical and procedural innovations.”
“The European satellite primes have demonstrated their worldwide leadership by capturing significant leads in megaconstellation developments,” said Magali Vaissiere, Director of TIA. “Through our Megaconstellation Workplan, we will strive to maintain and improve the capability and competitiveness of the industry of ESA Member States in the global Megaconstellations market, both addressing these initial opportunities and anticipating new ones.”
This opportunity is the first stage in helping to prepare industry in European participating states for a new era of major growth and innovation. To capitalise on the results of this urgent action, additional long-term support will also be prepared together with industry.
In particular, an ITT will be issued in the coming weeks under ARTES 1, addressing the strategic positioning of the satcom industry when considering its integration with terrestrial networks. The architecture of networks that are based on optical fiber and 5G mobile is likely to be much affected by virtualisation; and this could create new opportunities for technologies such as stratospheric, LEO, MEO or GEO constellations. Access to spectrum and debris mitigations are additional subjects to be addressed through ARTES 1.
Services and applications will also benefit from the introduction of satellite networks delivering new service features, so such studies may also considered for ARTES 1 support.
In addition, ESA staff will present details of how to engage with the Megaconstellations fast-track procedures at forthcoming events, e.g. the ARTES Telecom Days at ESTEC on 12-13 November 2015.
It should be noted that initially the dedicated Megaconstellations Workplan and its associated fast-track procedures address space segment (both platform and payload). Proposals that relate to the ground segment are also welcome, but for now should be proposed through the standard ARTES 3-4 and 5.2 programme elements.
Interested parties are encouraged to also consider the Atlas programme, an extension of ARTES 3-4 that is specifically designed to help industry to gain flight heritage for new equipment and technology. Atlas may be applied for either through the Megaconstellations fast-track procedures, or through the normal ARTES 3-4 procedures.
For more information about ESA's Megaconstellations Workplan, please contact Alan.Brunstrom@esa.int, Megaconstellations Opportunity Manager at ESA.