Orbcomm’s Space-based AIS Fails

Orbcomm, which owns a fleet of M2M satellites, said that its satellites that are capable of monitoring maritime traffic ceased functioning on February 1st, but that the company expects to replace it by this summer.

Orbcomm said its Quick Launch 3 satellite, one of six launched in June 2008 and built by a Russian-German team, had failed in orbit “toward the end of the fourth quarter 2010.”

That satellite was the sole remaining in-orbit asset carrying Orbcomm’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, which captures signals from ships and relays the data — including heading, speed, destination and cargo — to coastal authorities.

Orbcomm had been under contract to the U.S. Coast Guard and is making AIS capacity a feature on all 18 of its second-generation satellites (pdf), which are scheduled to be launched starting late this year. Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., is building the 18 2nd generation satellites under a $130 million contract that includes options to build up to 30 more.

These satellites will be launched aboard multiple Falcon 1e launch vehicles. The Falcon 9 rocket is the SpaceX heavier lifter.

As part of its settlement with OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, following the failure of the six satellites launched in June 2008, OHB and its Luxspace affiliate are building two dedicated AIS spacecraft for Orbcomm. These satellites are scheduled for launch starting by June, Orbcomm said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Space-based AIS is becoming a highly competitive market, with Orbcomm and Com Dev of Canada, through its exactEarth subsidiary, racing to put AIS capacity in orbit.

AISSat-1 is an AIS nanosatellite that was launched from India on July 12, 2010. It illustrates how big things can come in small packages. The University of Toronto helped build it. AISSat-2 will be Norway’s second AIS satellite. The CanX6 was built by students at the University of Toronto and is now tracking ships from space.

M3MSat (right) is their follow-on for the Canadian government. It’s expected to launch this summer.

The ESA also contracted with OHB for an AIS satellite constellation using technology from Kongsberg Seatex and others.

[As an aside, CEO of OHB-System, Berry Smutny was suspended after quotes appeared in Wikileaks calling the EU’s Galileo programa waste of EU tax payers money championed by French interests.”]

Orbcomm-1 satellites make up most of the current Orbcomm constellation of about 35 minisatellites. TacSat-1, a military satellite, was a modification of the original Orbcomm-1 design.

TacSat-2 included a hyperspectral telescope. TACSAT-3, a 400 kg (882 lb) mini, allows satellite tasking and communications directly to and from end users on the ground. Communications don’t have to be routed through a central earth station, using a satellite bus from Alliant Techsystems.

TacSat-4, scheduled to fly this Spring, will feature a 12 foot antenna and ten UHF radio channels.

TacSat-4 will fly in a highly elliptical 4-hour orbit, allowing 1 to 2-hour dwells on each pass. Handheld satphone radios don’t need antennas pointed directly at a satellite. If you need real-time sensor data from buoys a couple hundred miles off the coast, that kind of loitering could fill a niche. Might be handy for UAVs, too.

Three wideband Cisco Space Routers in polar Molniya orbit could tie the Northern hemisphere together (simulation). Sounds like a job for Sergey.

Huge geosynchronous MUOS satellites (Mobile User Objective System) are also supposed to improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move. But those platforms cost $350 million a pop, have launch costs in the hundreds of millions, require a ten year lead time and are subject to delays and cost overruns.

The $6.5 Billion MUOS program is (unsurprisingly) late. “Operationally Responsive Space” is supposed to fix all that using small satellites. How do commercial companies like Terrestar, ICO, Lightsquared and Inmarsat, manage to deliver similar spacecraft — on budget? They don’t have Uncle Sugar to pay for their screw-ups.

Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) is a world leading commercial satellite centre. The company currently operates Svalbard Satellite Station (SvalSat) at 78°15´N 15°80´E., (near the North Pole) and TrollSat 72°S 2°E (near the South Pole). Satellite store/dump facilities are provided in direct mode for satellites passing over the station. Data processing and distribution to any site in the world is provided.

The Automatic Identification System works by interrogating a VHF transceiver that incorporates LORAN-C or GPS location information, with a gyrocompass or rate of turn indicators. All ocean-going vessels and commercial vessels over 65 feet are required to use AIS equipment by the International Maritime Organization.

Space-based AIS provides global coverage of maritime activity, re-transmiting GPS coordinates, along with bearing and speed. ExactEarth AIS satellites pass over Norway’s Svalbard Earth Station every 90 to 100 minutes. AIS tracks vessel movements in near real-time and updates every two minutes or so when near shore stations.

AIS is required aboard international voyaging ships of 300 or more tons, and all passenger ships regardless of size. It is estimated that more than 40,000 ships currently carry AIS class A equipment. AIS was initially intended to help ships avoid collisions, as well as assisting port authorities to better control sea traffic.

Here’s the real-time vessel traffic world-wide posted on MarineTraffic.com, a mashup which was developed and hosted by the University of the Aegean in Greece.

In other news, satphone provider Globalstar, which has seen its global voice service melt away from radiation, expects to launch six next generation satellites in May, with two additional launches of six satellites each within 60-90 days. Globalstar plans to integrate the 24 new second-generation satellites with the eight first-generation satellites that were launched in 2007, to form a 32 satellite constellation.

Competing Big LEO satphone company Iridium says that Orbital Sciences will assemble and test 81 next-generation Iridium communications satellites, then purchase excess payload capacity on the spacecraft once they are in orbit. Thales Alenia Space won the $2.1 billion contract last year for the Iridium Next constellation. It flies in 2015.

ADS-B is a similar technique for aircraft, developed as part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). An ADS-B-equipped aircraft determines its own position and periodically broadcasts this position and other relevant information on a frequency near 1 GHz. Australia is the first country with full, nationwide ADS-B coverage.

Space.com lists the Top 10 Space Weapons. Lincoln Labs Annual Report reviews the latest cutting edge technology.

Related AIS news on Dailywireless include; Shipboard AIS Fused with Radar, Arctic Technology, Amazon Cloud for Ocean Observatories, Tracking Roz, the Ocean Rower.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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