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International Space Station upgrade brings near-real-time communication

The International Space Station (ISS) will be receiving a shipment aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship today, which includes a device to be attached to the Columbus laboratory that will enable almost instant communications between the station and Earth.

The Columbus laboratory is a module of the ISS for scientific research, with 75 cubic meters containing research equipment for projects requiring a weightless environment. Over the years since its construction and attachment to the ISS in 2008, it has hosted experiments in physiology, fluid science, solar monitoring, and atmospheric monitoring. The work being done there includes looking at how long-term spaceflight affects the human body, and at how fluids behave in microgravity which could provide benefits such as better methods for cleaning up oil spills.

Image of Europe's space laboratory Columbus
Image of Europe’s space laboratory Columbus taken by ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano from outside the International Space Station on the second spacewalk to service the cosmic ray detecting Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) on November 22, 2019. ESA–L. Parmitano, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

One problem with communications between the ISS and the ground is that the station passes around the Earth every 90 minutes. As is does so, it needs to switch from one ground station to another to maintain contact. But with a high-speed radio link installed on Columbus, the ISS astronauts will be able to send data back to Earth in almost real time.

The radio link will send signals from the station, located 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, to a group of satellites in geostationary orbit called the European Data Relay System. These satellites are in constant communication with just one ground station, allowing an uninterrupted flow of data from the station to the satellites to the ground.

Once the fridge-sized device, called ColKa (Columbus Ka-band antenna), arrives at the ISS, it will need to be installed on the outside of the Columbus module. When it is in place, it will provide speeds of up to 50 Mbps for downlink and up to 2 Mbps for uplink, according to the ESA.

“A spacewalk later this year will be dedicated to upgrading the Columbus module,” the ESA explained in a blog post. “Two astronauts will take ColKa through the Station’s airlock and bolt it to the outside of Columbus. The antenna connects to a dedicated plug outside Columbus that feeds the data from the facilities and computers inside.”

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