Europe Eyes Old Birds for Satellite Radio

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The European Space Agency has developed a prototype satellite radio system which uses old television satellites nearing the end of their working lives to provide high-quality satellite radio in Europe—along with video and data services. If the service were to go into commercial operation, it would be the first in-car satellite radio system available to Europeans, who do not receive service from leading North American satellite radio providers, XM and Sirius.

The ESA’s prototype system rides on an existing network of satellites originally put into orbit to broadcast television signals. These satellites typically have operational lifetimes of 10 to 15 years, but eventually run out of fuel to correct their orbital trajectories. However, the satellites are still operational, and even if they’re useless for television services which require stationary satellites, they’re still useful for data transmission.

The proposed satellite radio system would broadcast its programming as data files, rather than traditional radio signals: the data would be picked up by in-car receivers which would store the programming to a local memory cache; thus, even if a car goes out of range of a satellite—say in a tunnel, parking garage, or other structure—the system can continue to play programming from cache uninterrupted. The data-based approach also means the system can be used to distribute any sort of digital media or service, including navigation information and video content

The ESA has also worked on a specially flattened antenna designed to be integrated into a car’s body work so it can pick up transmissions in the Ku microwave frequency band used by the satellites.

The ESA demonstrated the system at the Noordwjk Space Expo in the Netherlands; currently, there are no concrete plans to commercialize the system, but the ESA has been working with nine partners for three years on creating the prototype.

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