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A satellite using laser has been launched into Space to beam back live images of Earth which could warn us of impending disasters well before they happen.

It is the first piece of a developing “space data highway” that will use laser to send data to Earth at record speeds up to 1.8Gb/second. These messages would provide a very early warning signal in time-critical scenarios such as floods and fires, to prepare and send in life-saving emergency responses much sooner.

The project, the European Data Relay System (EDRS), is designed to circumvent the current time-lapse of several hours between conventional satellites taking pictures and when  they pass over a receiving antenna to send the image down to Earth. In most cases satellites are only directly connected to receptor antenna for 10 minutes in every 90-minute orbit of Earth. With EDRS a new satellite terminal is placed in orbit to gather data from other satellites, and then relay it all to Earth with laser technology.

The EDRS has been ten years  in the making by a public–private partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Defence and Space and has reportedly cost €500m (£380m).

“We have already demonstrated quasi real-time performance of below 20 minutes for bringing monitoring information from the coast of Brazil to the user’s desk,” said Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s director of telecoms. “With this capability, the EDRS may open up a new horizon to what I would call quasi real time Earth observation.”

The first laser terminal lifted off last week from the famous launch cosmodrome at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and is already placed in orbit. It should go into full service starting in the summer and the second part of the system will take off in 2017.

However, this has not been an easy task. ESA project manager Michael Witting told BBC News: “The difficulty is basically that you have to hit another satellite with your laser beam over a distance of over 40,000km, which is akin to hitting a two-euro coin over the distance of the Atlantic.”

If successful, this new  high-speed data highway will be able to monitor the Earth continuously live. Armed with their evidence, Police will be able to catch illegal fishermen in the act, and emergency services could use the service to help searches for people missing at sea or on mountains, and even rescue potential victims from severe weather conditions before they strike.


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