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VesselSat1 Success Story - First satellite "made in Luxembourg"

Date: 17-11-2011

On 12 October 2011, VesselSat1, the first satellite built entirely in Luxembourg was placed in orbit for ORBCOMM Inc. Dedicated to tracking ships (the AIS system), it was created and assembled in less than a year by the engineers of LuxSpace sàrl. A record delivery time for the Luxembourg company, based at Betzdorf and managed by Jochen Harms, which is noted for its R&D activities and is the only designer of microsatellites in Europe. 

“Normally our competitors take two to three years to build this type of satellite,” says Jochen Harms, managing director of LuxSpace, the Luxembourg company responsible for the design and construction of VesselSat1. This satellite, the first entirely developed in Luxembourg, was successfully launched on 12 October from the Indian base Sriharikota into an orbit close to the equator. “We were awarded the contract by the American company ORBCOMM, a satellite communications services provider, at the end of September 2010,” he adds. “This contract also includes the launch of a second satellite which should be operational mid-January 2012 and will be installed on a Chinese launcher”.

Leading AIS data distributor in Europe

VesselSat1 is a microsatellite weighing 29 kilos and the size of a 30 centimetre cube. Its purpose is to track ships navigating the waters of the globe via the AIS system (Automatic Identification System), mandatory for ships of a certain size. Each equipped ship sends data every six seconds to the satellite such as its name, number, speed, direction, route changes etc. “Initially it was conceived as an anti-collision system, complementary to radar,” explains Jochen Harms. “We began work on this technology in 2007. The first AIS receiver designed by us, directly integrated into the body of a launch rocket, was sent into space in September 2009. This enabled us to conduct a first test in real conditions.” It should be explained that once a launch rocket has placed a satellite in orbit, it remains itself in orbit for several years.

In addition to this first successful trial, LuxSpace developed a whole network of activities around this tracking system. The entire value chain is covered, from the development of the satellite hardware through to the exploitation of data and their transmission to end users.  So the data collected by VesselSat1 for ORBCOMM are also exploited by LuxSpace, which handles their distribution throughout Europe. “ORBCOMM is going to launch a total of 18 satellites. We will be able to use all the information collected and thereby become the biggest distributor of AIS data in Europe.”

Terrestrial technologies applied in space

The sole European producer of  microsatellites (30 to 100 kilos), the company based at Betzdorf, on the SES site, differentiates itself from the competition by its original technological approach. “Our aim is to be able to work quickly and to offer the most advanced solutions to our customers. To achieve this, rather than using space components, like our competitors, we use to a large extent terrestrial technologies.” The reasons are many. A space component requires a lengthy design and production time. As a result, the technology used is often out of date. And, above all, it is more expensive to source. “Whereas a space processor costs around €50,000, our processor on-board costs €50.” The disadvantage, if there is one, concerns exposure to radiation. To protect its receiver, LuxSat surrounds it with an aluminium shield two centimetres  thick. “Given that you pay per kilo launched, the launch is more expensive but we believe that in view of the pace of development of terrestrial technologies, it is worth it.”

The first data transmitted by VesselSat1 confirm the high quality of the satellite developed by the Luxembourg company, whose engineers handled the overall design, the technical specification, the integration of sub-systems and the pre-launch tests. “Component production is largely sub-contracted to suppliers in Belgium, England, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary,… Everything is then assembled here in Betzdorf.”

A rapidly developing company

LuxSpace is planning to develop other activities related to the AIS system and so win new contracts for construction of satellites of the same type. The company, founded in 2004, is part of the German group OHB which has several companies in Europe and employs more than 2,500 people. “In Luxembourg we employ 30,” adds Jochen Harms, geographer by training. The company should grow further in the coming months. In addition to its heavy involvement in the field of microsatellites, LuxSpace is working on several projects for the European Space Agency (ESA). It is also carrying out activities related to earth observation and is on the lookout for new market needs.

“For the ESA, we are responsible for the development of a specific sub-system in the Small Geo and EDRS programmes. It’s largely thanks to the Luxembourg government and Luxinnovation that we are able to participate in such European programmes. But we are also strongly supported by SES which gives us the chance to work on its site and has helped us since our inception in 2004 to establish valuable contacts with the relevant ministries in the field of space technology.” With staff of more than a dozen nationalities, LuxSpace is now pursuing its development with its eyes turned to the sky.

Photo credits: Antrix/ISRO 2011

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