Outside facilities

9 September 2016

While ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet worked on science in the International Space Station many experiments were continuously recording data fixed to the outside of Europe’s Columbus laboratory or other areas on the Station’s hull. Working silently for years, these facilities offer a wealth of information for researchers on Earth.

Vessel-ID system

AIS antenna unfurledAccess the image

Large marine vessels continuously send information on their speed, location and direction. The Automatic Identification System has been around for decades to help harbour authorities direct ships near ports and avoid collisions.

The system uses basic VHF radio signals and was designed before satellites existed, so it is used only near land. This means that ships are on their own in open waters. Ships can receive signals from each other but in the middle of the Pacific Ocean nobody is monitoring their location.

Vessel ID is an ESA satellite receiver that is the marine equivalent of air traffic control systems. By capturing the radio waves in space from the Automatic Identification System, it tracks ships on the open seas.

The system itself does not need to be adapted but as it was not designed for global coverage from space a technology demonstration is needed to test receiving and processing the signals. Nobody knew how many ships continue to broadcast identification on the open seas, nor how many have antennas that beam their identification up to space as well as over land.

On a good day, around 400 000 position reports are received from more than 22 000 ships. If all goes well, global maritime surveillance using dedicated satellites could be in sight, much like there is for air traffic.

With global tracking of ships, collisions could be avoided, piracy and smuggling would be easier to combat, protected areas such as coral reefs could be enforced, and less-polluting shipping lanes could be defined. 


Solar was a combination of instruments placed on the outside of Europe’s Columbus laboratory that together measure the Sun’s output with unprecedented accuracy, from the infrared to the ultraviolet.

Solar ran automatically from the ground and used its sensors to measure the Sun’s temperature. Solar was switched in February 2017 off after continuously watching the Sun from the International Space Station for nine years.

The Sun is the source of energy for most life on Earth and it dominates our daily lives. The more we understand our Sun, the better we can protect life on Earth and our satellites in space.

To predict how the Sun will behave, scientists create complex computer models to build a virtual star. With more data, scientists can fine-tune their models. These models are an important step towards understanding humankind’s impact on Earth’s climate. 

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