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The sky is no limit: Norwegian satellites show the way

At 78º north, braving the bitter cold beneath the Breinosa Mountain on Svalbard, a group of scientists and dignitaries gathered for the opening of a new research centre. The sense of anticipation at this most northerly of stations was similar...

The Kjell Henriksen Observatory, part of the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), and Kongsberg Satellite Services’ TrollSat station in the Antarctic, both began operations in the early months of 2008, a time of unparalleled excitement in Norwegian space research. Together with plans for a new satellite, these new Centres provide the Norwegian space industry with the opportunity to propel itself to the forefront of key areas in global environmental research and to strengthen its role as a vital member of the European Space Agency and as a leader in international research.

Now, more than ever, there is a broad understanding that the international space industry is a race for individual countries and organizations, but a global, collaborative project in which all must play their part. Norway, with its historical maritime experience and extensive polar satellite knowledge, has the goal to contribute more than its part as a rising space nation. Challenges such as climate change, polar ice-melt, the increase in maritime traffic, and even environmental incidents such as oil spills are high on the agenda for cooperative activities between the Norwegian Space Centre (NSC) and the Norwegian Industrial Forum for Space Activities (NIFRO).
As part of the Minstry of Trade and Industry, the NSC functions as a co-ordinator of national space interests. Commercial properties managed on behalf of the Norwegian Government include the Andøya rocket range and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT). KSAT in turn owns the ground centers TrollSat on Queen Maud Land, and SvalSat on Svalbard, giving the NSC a strong presence in the polar satellite field.
One of the many advantages that Norway’s high latitude confers is the opportunity to observe the so-called “Northern Lights” (Aurora Borealis). The newly built Kjell Henriksen Observatory, on Svalbard, offers unparalled views.
© Peter Hamnes

A National Space Network

Responsibilities to the European Space Agency (ESA) necessitate close cooperation on all levels in Norway. NIFRO cooperates with the NSC as industrial liaison in industry areas of key importance as well as with implementation of national space strategies, with main focus areas including telecommunications; navigation and positioning earth observation; environment and resource surveillance; and R&D. NIFRO members include the Andøya Rocket Range, KSAT, and universities such as UNIS. Institutes such as the Research Council, which supports the utilization of Norwegian investments in scientific infrastructure in the ESA; the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Meteorological Institute, EISCAT, and the Nordic Optical Telescope all have major roles in the national space industry. It is an industry network that both requires and facilitates a strong sense of collective identity.
The Plant Biology Centre in Trondheim is among the world leaders in examining the reaction of plants to weightlessness, even having a seed experiment on the International Space Station (ISS). Solar physicists at the University of Oslo and Norwegian astronomers are leading the way in combining observations with the modelling of phenomena in the sun’s atmosphere. A contract has been secured with JAXA, the Japanese space organisation, to receive data from the sun satellite Hionodo, with data read on Svalbard. According to Terje Wahl, the NSA’s Chief Scientist; “Norway is perfectly situated for studies of important aspects of the Sun/Earth connection; these are the processes that cause the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.”

Top of the World

Located 500 metres above sea level, the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO) was opened in early 2008, a historic moment for Norway and its scientific community looking to contribute even more as global leader in the field of aurora research. Tore Aasland, the Norwegian Minister of Research and Higher Education, provided high praise for the new station; “I am convinced that this new research facility will represent a central addition to the research infrastructure in Svalbard, and I believe KHO will produce significant results in the future.” Well equipped with more than 15 optical instruments, and other non-optical instruments for the research of the middle and upper atmosphere, KHO is positioned to further enhance the international reputation built upon Svalbard’s unique observational opportunities.
KHO activities are international in scale, with 16 scientific organisations from 7 nations, including University College London and the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan all taking advantage of the new facilities. The observatory looks set for a bright – and global – future. As Terje Wahl commented; “This is a big contribution to environmental research,” he says. “It is both a focal point for students from all parts of the world, and a hub for polar environmental studies collected at and from Svalbard.”
TrollSat is Kongsberg Satellite Services’ ground station for data reception and the control of polar orbiting satellites. It is hoped that the centre will help improve both weather forecasting and the surveillance of remote waters.

Satellite Potential – North & South

The Kjell Henriksen Observatory joins a vibrant scientific community on Svalbard, which includes a number of ground stations for polar-orbiting satellites involved in Earth Observation. “Our northern location is a big advantage,” says the Space Centre’s Deputy Director General of Corporate Communications and Education, Marianne Moen. “We have the advantage of having well-placed ground stations for polar-orbit satellites, and can therefore be interesting cooperative partners for those who own satellites,” she adds.
These stations on Svalbard include SvalSat, a commercial venture that is partly-owned by the Norwegian Space Centre. The world’s best-placed station for polar-orbiting satellites, it provides an invaluable contribution to the field of Earth Observation. Operators at SvalSat are able to perform data dumps for each satellite orbit at one site, which includes Telemetry Tracking and Commanding (TT&C). The establishment of fibre cables, supported by the contributions of the NSC and NASA in 2004, enables the operation of real-time services including the monitoring of oil spill areas all over the world.
Earth Observation is one of the most important developing areas within environmental research. Norway’s contribution is increasingly significant, and early 2008 saw the opening of another pioneering centre, TrollSat, on Queen Maud Land. With this opening, KSAT is only company in the world offering satellite data readings both in the Arctic and the Antarctic. “TrollSat opens for faster access to environmental data measured from Earth Observation and meteorological satellites. Fast access will improve the weather forecast as well as monitoring and surveillance of remote waters,” says Rolf Skatteboe, KSAT’s President.
Earth Observation is one of the Norwegian Space Centre’s key areas of focus. Satellite data processed at SvalSat and TrollSat can contribute to studies of environmental processes and the effect of human activities on the planet. Among the issues currently being explored are biological diversity, water pollution, monitoring of the ozone hole and glaciers, the extent and changes to the Gulf Stream, and the charting of ice edge and sea ice extent. “The Arctic is the place on the earth where the climate changes will be shown the quickest,” explains the NSC’s Marianne Moen. “Therefore it is important to keep an overview over the changes, both in relation to ice conditions and in vegetation in these enormous areas. Since nobody lives north of 79ºN, satellites are the only rational way to acquire information. The polar orbit satellites cross the North Pole area 14 times a day, and coverage in the north is better than in areas that lie closer to the Equator. The reading station in Svalbard has a strategic location because it is possible to make contact with the satellites every time they pass.”

Contributions to European Programmes

Norway has traditionally being a driving force in field of marine environment monitoring, especially seen in the context of the European Space Agency’s programmes. The ESA’s two polar orbiting satellites, ERS-2 and ENVISAT, are both used in the monitoring of the seas and the wider environment, with their data downloaded at Tromsø and Svalbard. “In Norway, we have traditionally had a strong reputation within satellite communication,” says Moen. “We have always had to communicate with trade and fishing vessels while they were at sea, and in the 1970s, the development of offshore-work started. In Svalbard, there were people who wanted to watch TV and talk with their relatives on the phone. This helped to develop technology within communication via satellite that is still going strong in Norway.”
The Norwegian Space Centre at Skøyen, Oslo, is a government agency promoting national space interests, research and activity. It also supports Norwegian involvement in the European Space Agency (ESA).
The massive global initiative, GEOSS, coordinated by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), came into being in February 2005 at the Third Earth Observation Summit in Brussels. This followed high-level meetings at the G8 Summit and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. The broad 10-year goal is to foster international cooperation with regard to Earth Observation, so that global environmental strategies can be discussed based on the best available information. The ESA’s branch of the GEOSS project is known as GMES (Global Monitoring of the Environment and Security).
The NSC has offered GMES its expertise in the far north by financing EuroCryoClim, a collaborative project with the ESA. EuroCryoClim uses a range of data from different satellites including the ESA’s ENVISAT, and in the future will also use the European satellite family, Sentinel. On a local level, EuroCryoClim the contribution of the NSC, the Meteorological Institute, the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate with the aim of making as much data as possible available to climate researchers. “Norway knows a lot about snow and ice,” says Moen. “Therefore we have got involved in these areas of GEOSS. The aim of the project is to make maps and an overview that shows the development of sea ice in the Arctic over long periods of time. Eventually, the aim is to develop long series on iceberg ice and snow quantities, but at the moment we have only started with the sea ice,” she adds.
EuroCryoClim is Norway’s biggest contribution to the GEO, and might be described as Norway’s environmental flagship within the field of Earth Observation. Furthermore it provides evidence of the national industry’s niche expertise. The challenges presented by global environmental change may be immense, with no single nation alone have the resources to solve them, and EuroCryoClim shows that, through local, national and international cooperation, great and highly practical achievements are still possible.
Norway’s other significant addition to GMES is in the field of sea pollution and surveillance. “Norway got started very early using radar satellites for oil spillage and the uncovering of pollution in the seas,” says Moen. Kongsberg Seatex is again the pioneer, last year winning a contract with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) for surveillance of Europe’s coastal seas. KSAT processes satellite images and relays them to the Agency’s headquarters in Lisbon usually within 30 minutes.
The EMSA’s programme, the CleanSeaNet satellite-based oil spill detection service, began producing results just a day after it became operational on 16 April 2007, capturing images of four possible oil spills between England and the Netherlands and relaying the information for assessment in Lisbon. That picture was produced by the European Space Agency’s ENVISAT and downloaded at KSAT’s ground station in Tromsø. Last autumn, a large oil tanker sank during a strong storm in the Kerch Strait area of the Black Sea. The resulting oil leakage represented an environmental hazard causing concern for the areas around the strait. The EMSA began monitoring the situation immediately by requesting routine coverage of the area, gathering data from both ENVISAT and the Canadian Radarsat-1 satellite. Data was transmitted at Tromsø and Grimstad in South Norway, showing a number of spills in the area.
Satellites including the European Space Agency’s METEOSAT, orbiting the earth at a distance of 36,000 km.
Plans are already at an advanced stage for the launch of an experimental AIS (Automatic Identification System).
© NSC. Illustration: NSC/Pål Nordberg.

On Track for Norway’s First Satellite

Keeping track of large ships and recording their names, positions, speeds, courses and cargoes is an essential and basic component of maritime safety. Vessels have long benefited from Norway’s pioneering Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, which transmit information from ships larger than 300 GT to neighbouring ships and the coastal authorities. At ground level the system is limited, with the existing shore-based arrangement, operated by the Norwegian Coastal Administration, extending no further than 40 nautical miles. In short, a huge percentage of the Norwegian ocean areas have been simply out of range.
When the then Director General of the Norwegian Space Centre, Rolf Skåv, outlined the centre’s essential motivational philosophies in his farewell speech less than two years ago, he declared that “The Norwegian Space Centre prioritizes the beneficial in preference to the more spectacular or media focussed, such as national astronauts or its own scientific satellites,” Research, however, was already sounding out the possibility of launching a Norwegian satellite in the 2009-10 timeframe – a satellite that may bring ships in the far northern seas into communication contact.
Rather than representing a change in policy from the “beneficial” to the “spectacular”, this satellite is very obviously aimed to be the embodiment of both adjectives. Its purpose is clear: to introduce a space-based AIS system, with a dramatically improved coverage. “There are two goals, so to speak,” says NSC’s Chief Scientist, Terje Wahl. “The application-related goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to receive signals in the northernmost waters. We want to extend AIS coverage beyond what is available now at ground level.”
“The second goal,” he continues, “is the industrial side, which will show that, by starting early, we will be able to secure a good role for the Norwegian industry in the field of AIS satellites for the future.” The opportunity for the new satellite will not only enhance Norway’s international standing as a pioneering space nation, but will also provide genuine safety enhancements for the maritime industry, in keeping with the NSC’s stated aim that its activities support needs both in research and public administration.

International Cooperation

The AIS receiver is being developed by Kongsberg Seatex in Trondheim, and cooperation with the University of Toronto Space Flight Laboratory will secure the production of the satellite platform. In keeping with the NSC’s “use-value” catchword, the satellite’s dimensions are to be just 20 x 20 x 20cm, and this, Wahl confirmed, will significantly reduce the cost of launch.
The Norwegian Government’s broad strategy for the High North lists among its recommendations that satellite-based AIS research should continue. With this encouragement, research is entering a crucial stage. “The design phase will be complete soon,” Wahl confirms. “What we call the Critical Design Review will take place at the end of February. The plan is to start construction after that.”
Launch within the next two years now seems highly likely, and a Norwegian satellite looks set to join the industry’s remarkable recent achievements. Norway’s historical rapport with ice and snow, its access to the very northernmost reaches of human settlement, and its proud coastal and seafaring traditions are fine advantages to bring to the international space community. The pragmatic “use-value” focus at the NSC, the vision and optimism of the GEO for worldwide cooperation in Earth Observation, and a concrete role in the ESA, ensures that these advantages will be put to practical use, whether for ships sailing in busy Norwegian waters, or for future generations reaping the rewards of better-informed environmental management at a global level. For the Norwegian space effort, the sky poses is no limit, it represents challenges – and opportunities.