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International Team Watches Sea Traffic From Space Station
April 4, 2012


The Earth from space
This world map depicts one day of ship-position reports picked up by the NORAIS receiver.

Research being conducted on the International Space Station (ISS) is on the way to developing technology for monitoring global shipping traffic.

Such a system, according to a press release from the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, could provide a new body of data for use in an array of activities: law enforcement, fishery control, maritime border control, marine environment monitoring, global security and search-and-rescue activities.

The very existence of the ISS owes itself to international scientific cooperation, and the collaborative effort to develop the Automatic Identification System (AIS) bears true to that tradition.

• The ESA is hosting the work in its research module on board the ISS. NASA and a U.S. astronaut conducted a 2009 spacewalk to install the antennae that the marine monitoring system requires.

• A volunteer-based educational organization, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, built the antennae as part of its mission to engage amateurs in space research and communication.

• Astrium Gmbh, a European company specializing in space transportation and satellite systems and services, built a new class of space computer that integrates the data system.

• The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment built data-relay hardware and a receiver mounted inside ESA’s Columbus research module, under the project name NORAIS.

The ship-traffic monitoring system starts with transponders that are required on international cargo and passenger ships. These transponders broadcast continually updated data about the ship, including the identity, position, course, speed, cargo and voyage information. Currently, this data is monitored and used by port authorities and coast guard forces, but there is no way to track transponder data from ships on the open seas. The transponders rely on VHF radio signals with a horizontal range of just 74 kilometers, so the data is only useful when a ship sails into port or encounters another ship at sea.

The specially designed hardware installed on the ISS module Columbus is able to track the transponder data and relay it back to Earth to the Columbus Control Center in Germany. From there, the data is relayed to the Norwegian User Support and Operations Centre in Trondheim, Norway.

NORAIS has been receiving data from Columbus, according to the ESA/NASA press release, in a near continuous flow that is very near real-time. Approximately 400,000 ship position reports are received daily from more than 22,000 individual ships, each of which has a unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI). In a monthlong summary compiled in October 2011, position reports exceeded 110 million messages, from more than 82,000 different MMSI numbers.

The diverse team working on the ship identification system is continuing to develop more sophisticated tools for transmitting and interpreting the data before making the tracking system widely available. Refinements of the system are especially necessary in high-traffic shipping lanes where signals might be lost or muddled.