Minimize ESAIL

ESAIL Maritime Microsatellite

Spacecraft     Sensor Complement    Launch    ION    References

Space technology company OHB SE of Bremen, Germany, is widening its range of products with the addition of a new platform for microsatellites. Accordingly, LuxSpace Sarl, OHB’s Luxembourg-based subsidiary, has entered into a contract with ESA (European Space Agency). LuxSpace will develop an entirely new, cost-effective and versatile microsatellite platform to be known as “Triton-X”. 1)

Triton-X will be opening up new perspectives for the OHB Group in the “new space market” and generating scope for commercial applications. The microsatellites will have a mass of around 80 kg and transport a payload of up to 30 kg to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) at an altitude range of 250-700 km.

LuxSpace’s microsatellite project ESAIL, a PPP (Public-Private-Partnership) with ESA in the ARTES (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems) program and the Canadian company exactEarth, has been picking up speed since the first quarter if 2018 after passing important milestones. The payload is an AIS receiver for ship- and vessel detection from space, and the satellite mass at launch will be approximately 110 kg. The satellite payload also enables advanced raw data handling and RF-spectrum sampling for ground processing.


Triton-X is a new platform reflecting the New Space philosophy, targeting in particular commercial applications for which affordability and time-to-market are paramount. This includes satcoms, earth observation, situational awareness, and technology demonstration. 2)

Enabling affordable LEO (Low Earth Orbit) constellations is a key design requirement for the new platform. This means low recurring costs, with efficient manufacturing, assembly and testing processes optimized for fast time-to-market. To achieve these objectives, LuxSpace will draw on know-how and experience gained through several previous missions, including Pathfinder-2 (LuxSpace’s early AIS validation mission), Vesselsat-1 and -2 (both AIS satellites flown for Orbcomm), 4M (the first privately funded Moon mission) and most recently ESAIL, which is based on LuxSpace’s Triton-2 high-performance AIS platform that is being developed in an ARTES project between LuxSpace, ESA, and exactEarth .

Project Phases

In the initial phase of Triton-X, LuxSpace will define the overall system architecture. The company will also invite partners to join the project as part of the core industrial team and build long-term industrial relationships to develop the product line.

In the second stage of the project, the Triton-X consortium will embark upon the process of implementing and qualifying the new platform for space.

The third and final phase of the project will encompass the launch of the first Triton-X flight model to gain in-orbit validation. This should pave the way for the deployment of LEO constellations in the future.

“In today's rapid evolution of the space market, ESA is continuing to support European industry in the most effective manner, by adapting with industry to the working methodologies of New Space. Within that context, this project is a good example of how ESA can respond to the needs of Industry as they address the emerging opportunities created by microsatellites,” says ESA’s Magali Vaissiere, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications.


Figure 1: An artistic rendition of LuxSpace’s ESAIL spacecraft based on the Triton-2 platform (image credit: ESA, LuxSpace)

Development status

• June 12, 2020: The ESAIL microsatellite for tracking ships worldwide – developed under an ESA Partnership Project – has completed its accommodation on Vega’s new dispenser for small satellites and is ready for launch. 3)

- The Vega launch campaign at Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, resumed three weeks ago, following an interruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

- ESAIL is due to be delivered into a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of more than 500 km on Arianespace’s first Vega Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) rideshare flight. The launch will deliver seven microsatellites and 46 CubeSats into orbit, using a new satellite dispenser that spreads the cost of launch between many customers.


Figure 2: The ESAIL satellite mounted on Arianespace’s new launch adapter (image credit: ESA)

- The ESAIL high-performance microsatellite was built by LuxSpace under an ESA Partnership Project with the Canadian operator exactEarth. The project was supported by the Luxembourg Space Agency and other ESA member states.

- ESA’s Partnership Projects aim to develop sustainable end-to-end systems, right up to in-orbit validation.

- ESAIL will track ships worldwide by detecting messages that ships radio-broadcast with their automatic identification systems (AIS).

- As part of exactEarth’s satellite-based AIS constellation, ESAIL will provide data also to EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) for the next generation of global maritime traffic services.

- ESAIL enables fisheries monitoring, fleet management, environmental protection and security monitoring for maritime and government authorities and industry – making the seas safer.

• July 8, 2019: The ESAIL microsatellite developed under ESA’s program for tracking ships at sea is going through its final tests ahead of launch. 4)


Figure 3: The ESAIL microsatellite completes environmental tests (image credit: LuxSpace)

- ESAIL has successfully completed its environmental testing campaign, which was performed in just five weeks in the specialized facilities of CSL (Centre Spatial de Liège) in Belgium.

- The satellite was exposed to mechanical vibrations simulating the violence of a rocket launch, as well as to the extreme temperatures and vacuum similar to those it will experience in its near Earth orbital environment.

- The solar generators and antennas were also deployed to confirm the mechanisms performance after the rough mechanical and thermal vacuum test.

- This achievement was possible thanks to the close cooperation between delegations, industry and the ESA teams.

• May 9, 2019: Arianespace announced today that it has been selected by exactEarth to launch the ESAIL satellite using a Vega as part of the launcher’s Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) Proof of Concept (POC) flight. 5)

- It is the final contract signed by Arianespace for this POC flight, which is now completely booked with 42 payloads onboard.

- Vega’s POC flight will be the first mission for SSMS – a program initiated by ESA in 2016 with the contribution of the European Commission. For all European partners involved, its purpose is to perfectly address the burgeoning microsatellite market for both institutional and commercial needs with a new rideshare concept on the Vega light-lift launcher.

• On 9 May 2019, exactEarth the Canadian operator of ESAIL, signed the launch service agreement with Arianespace. 6)

- ESAIL is part of ESA’s Partnership Projects and has been developed to enhance the next generation of space‐based services for the maritime sector. The spacecraft will track ship movements over the entire globe as it orbits the planet.

- Satellite coverage is essential as about 90% of global trade takes place on the oceans. It opens the door to enhanced safety, tracking ships and route provisions for industry, government and maritime authorities.

- Ships of 300 tons or more in international voyages, cargo ships of 500 tons or more in local waters and all passenger ships irrespective of size are mandated by the International Maritime Organization to carry AIS (Automatic Identification System) equipment.

- ESAIL’s AIS receiver provides advanced antenna beamforming and ground signal processing capabilities. The satellite needs rigorous testing before launch to ensure it can provide this always‐on service.

- The satellite flight model has completed its environmental tests in Centre Spatial de Liège in Belgium, where it was exposed to mechanical vibration testing, simulating the violence of a rocket launch, as well as to the extreme temperatures and vacuum simulating the near Earth orbital environment.

- The satellite is going through the final steps to be ready for launch in August.

- Peter Mabson, chief executive of exactEarth, said: “We are looking forward to adding ESAIL to our industry-leading global maritime satellite constellation, which now consists of more than 60 in-orbit high performance satellite assets. The capabilities on ESAIL will allow us to continue to advance the state-of-the-art in maritime vessel tracking and data services, and will pave the way for future capabilities. I would like to thank ESA and LuxSpace and their satellite manufacturing team for their accomplishments in producing this leading-edge microsatellite.”

- Stephane Lascar, Head of Telecommunication Satellite Programs at ESA, said: “ESA’s Partnership Projects offer the most appropriate scheme for private and public entities to de-risk investments and answer market needs. They maximize benefits to industry, thanks to ESA’s efficient co-management tailored to commercial practices. ESAIL demonstrates once again ESA’s capacity to federate operator, industry and small and medium-sized enterprises around challenging programs, achieving competitive leaps forward and economic impact. I should like to thank our partners and participating states for their trust and close cooperation.”

- Thomas Görlach, Chief of the Executive Board at LuxSpace, said: “ESAIL is a major milestone for us as a microsatellite solution provider. It enabled us to build and integrate a sophisticated microsatellite while using commercial off the shelf components and thus reducing time for testing and launch qualification. The emerged synergies paved our way towards commercial space. We have gained very valuable experiences and knowledge through ESAIL which serve as inputs for our next milestone: the Triton‐X platform.”

Sensor complement (AIS)

AIS (Automatic Identification System)

ESAIL features an enhanced multiple antenna-receiver configuration for global detection of AIS messages and high-resolution spectrum capture, which will enable the demonstration of advanced future services such as VDES (VHF Data Exchange System) message reception.

After launch and commissioning, the ESAIL satellite will be integrated into exactEarth’s global constellation – which currently consists of more than 60 high-performance maritime monitoring payloads.

Launch: The ESAIL microsatellite is scheduled to be launched on 19 June 2020 on a Vega SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service) rideshare mission from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. This rideshare launch is the first flight of a multipayload dispenser funded by the European Space Agency to allow the Vega rocket to deliver numerous small satellites to orbit on a single mission.7)

Orbit: The ESAIL microsatellite will be launched into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) at an altitude of 515 km, inclination =97.45º.

Vega’s POC flight will be the first mission for SSMS – a program initiated by ESA in 2016 with the contribution of the European Commission. For all European partners involved, its purpose is to perfectly address the burgeoning microsatellite market for both institutional and commercial needs with a new rideshare concept on the Vega light-lift launcher.

The 110-kilogram ESAIL will join 41 other satellites on the SSMS “Proof of Concept” mission to demonstrate the use of the rocket for launching a large collection of smallsats. ESAIL is the final spacecraft to be added to the mission. 8)

“We are fully booked. We have no gram left of performance,” Marino Fragnito, vice president of the Vega business unit at Arianespace, said of that mission during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2019 conference here 8 May.

Among the customers announced for the first SSMS mission are rideshare service providers Innovative Solutions in Space, D-Orbit and Spaceflight, as well as smallsat developer Sitael. The satellites range from microsatellites weighing 160 kg down to 1U CubeSats, Fragnito said.

A second SSMS mission is planned for 2020, and is almost fully booked, Fragnito said. That will fly on a “dawn-dusk” sun-synchronous orbit, the first rideshare mission to that specific orbit that he said he was aware of. An advantage of using the Vega from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, he noted, was the wide range of orbital inclinations available for launches from there.

ION (In Orbit Now) CubeSat Carrier on the Vega SSMS rideshare mission

The ION CubeSat carrier is a satellite platform manufactured and operated by D-Orbit (Como, Italy) to carry out InOrbit NOW missions (InOrbit NOW is a service by D-Orbit). It is a complete spacecraft, with its own avionics, electrical and power, attitude control, thermal control, and command and data handling subsystems. Throughout its mission, it can modify its own attitude to accommodate the specific needs of each client. The avionics is designed with high reliability in mind, and all mission-critical subsystems are redundant. The carrier features triple-fault tolerant release commanding subsystems, guaranteeing the release of all CubeSats even in case of failure of the main system. 9)

A 60 cm cubic dispenser provides an internal volume that can accommodate several combinations of 1U, 2U, 3U, 3U+, 6U, 6U+, 12U and 12U+ CubeSats along the vertical axis, until completion of the 48 slots available.

Each tube mounted onboard has its own independent spring release mechanism to guarantee that your CubeSat will be released at the right time and with the right impulse.


Figure 4: Illustration of the ION CubeSat Carrier (image credit: D-Orbit)

1) ”OHB developing microsatellites for new space market,” OHB LuxSpace, 12 September 2017, URL:

2) ”LuxSpace to develop new microsatellite platform,” ESA, 23 August 2017, URL:

3) ”ESAIL maritime satellite ready for launch,” ESA Applications, 12 June 2020, URL:

4) ”ESAIL undergoes its final preparations for launch,” ESA, 8 July 2019, URL:

5) Arianespace to launch the ESAIL satellite for exactEarth on Vega’s SSMS POC flight,” Arianespace, 9 May 2019, URL:

6) ”Maritime microsatellite ESAIL to test the waters as launch contract is signed,” ESA, 9 May 2019, URL:

7) ”Flight VV16: For the first Vega mission of 2020, Arianespace will perform the Small Spacecraft Mission Service Proof of Concept flight,” Arianespace Press Release, 11 June 2020, URL:

8) Jeff Foust, ”Arianespace completes manifest for Vega dedicated rideshare mission,” SpaceNews, 9 May 2019, URL:

9) ”ION CubeSat Carrier,” URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

Spacecraft     Sensor Complement    Launch    ION    References    Back to top