European Space Agency to measure Earth at millimeter scale

Awards contracts for spacecraft to bring the IoT to space

The European Space Agency has committed €76.6 million ($83 million) toward the development of Genesis – a flying observatory that will provide positioning services accurate to a single millimeter.

The cash is roughly one third of the €233 million ($253 million) awarded for contracts related to position calculating satellite systems that was announced on Tuesday.

Genesis is expected to provide International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) – a global coordinate system that precisely defines the positions and movements of Earth, down to that single millimeter of accuracy with a long-term stability of 0.1mm per year.

The satellite will accomplish this by having the usual main Earth-measuring techniques co-located on board – including satellite navigation ranging, very-long-baseline interferometry, satellite laser ranging and a system that uses Doppler shift in radio signals between ground stations and satellites to determine satellite positions known as Doppler Orbitography and Radio positioning Integrated by Satellite (DORIS). All will be synchronized by an ultra-stable oscillator (USO).

When used together, the ESA expects to be able to correct for biases inherent in each technique.

"Genesis, by co-locating all four geodetic techniques on the same satellite and with properly calibrated and synchronized instruments, will give results on Earth's measurements that have never been seen before," declared Genesis prime contractor OHB Italia's managing director, Roberto Aceti.

Last year, the ESA applauded the 20cm horizontal and 40cm vertical accuracy achieved by the then-new High Accuracy Service (HAS). At the time Europe's satnav fleet, Galileo, with its 28-satellite constellations and worldwide ground segment, was considered the world's most precise satellite navigation system.

And while 20cm resolution is fairly accurate as a measurement of Earth, a single millimeter is quite a lot more so.

"An updated International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) will have immediate benefits on satellite-based systems, impacting Galileo-enabled applications in fields like aviation, traffic management, autonomous vehicles, positioning and navigation," reasoned the ESA in its Tuesday announcement.

The space agency added that meteorology, natural hazard prediction, monitoring climate change effects, land management and surveying – as well as the study of gravitational and non-gravitational forces as fields – would also see benefits.

The rest of the contract money – two separate €78.4 million (US$85.2 million) chunks – was designated for the Low Earth Orbit Positioning Navigation and Timing demonstrator, or the LEO-PNT.

The prime contractor for one of the LEO-PNT demonstrator contracts is GMV Aerospace and Defence, the other is Thales Alenia Space.

LEO-PNT is a small constellation of demonstration satellites that test the use of novel signals and frequency bands to improve positional accuracy, working in conjunction with Galileo and other satnav systems.

"LEO-PNT will assure signals to improve robustness of existing GNSS in medium Earth orbit such as natural phenomena impairments and interferences, and provide services to places where today's satnav systems cannot reach – deep urban areas and even indoors," explained the space agency.

The device will also, hopefully, demonstrate the interoperability of positioning navigation and timing with open communication standards, including 5G and 6G, which could allow for new IoT applications, emergency services and low latency data for positioning and timing.

Both the Genesis device and the LEO-PNT demonstrator were first announced in 2022 and are new missions within the FutureNAV program, which seeks to continue modernizing satnav technology.

Genesis is scheduled to launch in 2028, while LEO-PNT should have a completed constellation in orbit before 2027. ®

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