Portuguese Companies Develop Remote Control for ESA Satellite

ESA is launching the first Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS), a project aiming to reduce the costs of deploying satellites into orbit. Onboard of the next Vega flight are 53 satellites, including eSail, developed with the contribution of two Portuguese companies.

When released by Vega VV16, in a Sun-synchronous orbit about 500 above Earth, the new satellite of the European Space Agency’s SAT-AIS programme (a short-range coastal tracking system currently used on ships) will be controlled from a terrestrial station in Svalbard, an island in the Norwegian archipelago of the same name. An operation made possible thanks to the Real-Time Executive for Multiprocessor Systems (RTEMS) by Edisoft, a Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) based on open standards dedicated to critical applications, and that will be onboard of eSail. This microsatellite, developed through the partnership between the European Space Agency, LuxSpace and the Canadian company exactEarth, allows the monitoring of vessels from Space and is on a number of technologies that will increase and strengthen the contribution of Space to the economic development and success of a sustainable and safe maritime sector.

Initially invited to customise the RTEMS to the specificities of eSail, Edisoft, a Portuguese company, end up being responsible for the development of the Electrical Ground Support Equipment (EGSE) system. Besides testing the assembly and integration of all the systems onboard the satellite, the EGSE system also allows the remote operation of the spacecraft from Earth. 

“LuxSpace (ESA’s subcontractor) wanted our version of RTEMS for eSail, and we were asked to do training for the whole team. They also asked if we were interested in developing the EGSE, which allows us to test the satellites still on the ground”, explains Hélder Silva, director of Edisoft‘s Space Software and Embedded Systems. The RTEMS by Edisoft is used in the construction and assembly phase of the satellites, confirming that the various components are correctly installed and ready to operate with a minimum of failure.

The project with LuxSpace, responsible for creating the eSail, with the support of the Luxembourg Space Agency and other ESA member states, started in December 2014. Only recently and with the EGSE already in a final phase, was Edisoft asked to adapt this same system to the remote control of the operation. “Not long ago it was realised that exactlyEarth, the final client in this project, had operating needs and asked us to adapt the EGSE to the operation phase,” says Hélder Silva. 

At this point in the process, another Portuguese company was called upon to collaborate in eSail, Evoleo Technologies. The company has been responsible for coordinating the technical specifications and interface between Edisoft and LuxSpace. It also supported the development and implementation of the EGSE’s hardware, says Rodolfo Martins, CEO of Evoleo. 

“LuxSpace came to us by reference of ESA, which suggested Evoleo coordinate the development process of EGSE, between Edisoft and LuxSpace, because we have previous experience in other past projects”, explains Rodolfo Martins. eSail wasn’t, however, the first time that the Portuguese SME has worked on ESA projects. Rodolfo Martins recalls that Evoleo has been involved with ESA projects since the first day of the company in January 2007. Initially, they only gave limited support to Efacec, another Portuguese company. Later Evoleo collaborated on the TDP8 project for the Alphasat satellite, led by Efacec, that started in 2008, a task that Rodolfo Martins believes “has also been decisive” for the emergence of this new contract.

In eSail, Evoleo also contributed to the development of the interfaces between the software and the hardware (drivers), including the support to the specification, architecture and design. The company also gave support to LuxSpace during the initial phase of the satellite command and telemetry database development.

“Regarding the SW flight support, although the collaboration with LuxSpace was crucial, the definition, design and implementation of the interface board control software to the satellite’s sensors and actuators are, in our opinion, critical for the mission’s success, since it influences the satellite’s manoeuvrability and control”, emphasises Evoleo’s president.

Looking to the future

Edisoft now expects to “integrate EGSE into ESA’s small satellite projects” and to operate the system as a service, meaning “testing small satellites from other companies to optimise what we call New Space”, adds the head of Edisoft. The company, a joint venture of Thales, NAV Portugal and Empordef, and responsible for the operation of the Space Teleport located on the island of Santa Maria in the, Azores is already “in advanced talks with ESA to migrate the system”. 

A potential new contract is, in fact, one of the most significant benefits of participating in eSail. With a base contract of around €500.000 and the involvement, during the last six years, of a team of variable size – usually with four elements – Hélder Silva confirms that more important than the monetary value of the project is the recognition achieved. “We are used to working with very demanding standards in software development. Missions like this make it easier to be called to projects of high complexity,” says the director of the Space Software Area of Edisoft. And he concluded: “Working with eSail opens doors for us to projects that traditionally are not within reach of Portuguese companies, because developing critical software is not the same as developing software for banking or telecommunications”.  

Rodolfo Martins agrees that international perception is “clearly” more important. “The financial benefit is always necessary and welcome, but what really matters is the recognition,” says the president of Evoleo, recalling that the LuxSpace contact was awarded through ESA. Evoleo also anticipates that new contracts may emerge. “Following this activity, relations with OHB in Germany (LuxSpace’s parent company) and with ESA itself have grown, as has our list of references. We always have the understanding of being partners, emphasising that a satisfied partner in a less generous business in the short term attracts more opportunities in the long term”, assures Elevo’s CEO.

The President of Portugal Space, Chiara Manfletti, has a similar opinion. “The presence of Portuguese companies in this process shows that the country is widening its scope in the frame of ESA as it targets activities of high socio-economic potential. The participation in ESA is a token of the European spirit in Portugal as well as giving Portuguese companies a seal of quality for the technologies and services they produce”. 

Decoding eSail

LuxSpace’s microsatellite is part of the European SAT-AIS programme, which will extend the geographical range of the current automatic identification terrestrial systems (AIS). This technological enhancement will provide the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) with the technology and data needed to create the next generation of global maritime traffic services. Both ESA and EMSA have in mind the development of maritime safety services such as the prevention of pollution from ships and the tracking of dangerous goods.

With eSail in place, it will be possible to eliminate the blind spots in the current SAT-IAS, as the Earth’s curvature limits the horizontal range of the system to about 74 km from shore, reducing traffic monitoring to coastal areas or ship-to-ship use. The deployment of eSail strengthens the capacity to monitor fishing fleets, protect marine ecosystems, and gives maritime and government entities, as well as industrial players, higher guarantees of operational safety.

ESA’s microsatellite constellation (SAT-AIS) collects, records and decodes the identity, position and route, among other information, of each vessel. This information is then sent to ground stations for processing and distribution. Any ship in international voyages with 300 tonnes or more, and cargo ships of 500 tonnes or more in local waters and all passenger ships, irrespective of size, shall carry a so-called transponder, Automatic Identification System (AIS) equipment. 

“The development of the SAT-AIS system is an important element for Space to expand and strengthen its contribution to the growth and economic success of a sustainable and safe maritime sector. This and the maturation of other technologies will make it possible to launch autonomous maritime vehicles, platforms and autonomous navigation as a solution and transport service”, says Chiara Manfletti. The President of the Portuguese Space Agency recalls that the creation of autonomous navigation services is one of Portugal Space’s lighthouse projects. To the latter, she adds: “beyond the safety and security dimension of maritime activities, this allows a more environmentally friendly approach, more efficient and also subject to less human error, as well as enable new ocean-based food sectors to emerge”.

© ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Vidéo du CSG – P. BAUDON


The eSail launch will make history for other reasons as well. Besides being the first flight from the European Spaceport in Kourou, after a long stop caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is also a proof-of-concept flight. The demonstration and validation of the technical and financial model of the new shared small satellite launch service created by ESA will happen during the Vega VV16 launch.

The so-called SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service) dispenser was configured according to the customer’s needs of each mission, having the capacity to transport from 1 kg CubeSats to 500 kg mini-satellites. On Sunday’s flight, SSMS will serve 21 customers, which are responsible for seven microsatellites and 46 CubeSats. Between them, they will share the launch costs, which will give access to more affordable operations. This launch of the SSMS is part of a partnership between ESA and the European Union, which has partially funded the mission under the Horizon 2020 programme. According to a statement by ESA, “this new service is intended to develop space technologies created in Europe, creating new launch opportunities for owners of small satellites”.

The launch of the SSMS is part of a partnership between ESA and the European Union, which has partially funded the mission under the Horizon 2020 programme. According to a statement by ESA, “this new service is intended to develop space technologies created in Europe, creating new launch opportunities for owners of small satellites”.


Portugal Space
22 of June, 2020