Satellites transmitting data with laser technology are at the forefront of a new superfast network sending high definition images back to Earth from space.
The European Space Agency is sending satellites into high orbit to beam information gathered by other space stations with a time delay of just 20 minutes.
Current satellite imaging systems are hampered in sending their images to Earth stations because they have a window of around 10 minutes in every 90 minutes when they are in a position over a receiver on the surface.
This means military and civil observers are making decisions about how to react to fast-changing situations on the ground based on out-of-date information.
The main application is for managing responses to natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes.
Images beamed across space
They can also monitor ocean piracy, illegal fishing or troop movements in almost real-time to allow quicker co-ordinated reactions by governments.
The new satellites orbit 36,000kms above the equator and have a constant ground connection.
But the laser technology is the real step forward that makes the system quicker and more efficient.
Existing satellites will send the data they collect by laser to the new relay satellites, which will then transmit the information back to the ground at a speed of 1.8Gps.
Scientists have had the system under development for a decade to overcome the problem of sending a laser datastream to hit a target no larger than 3cms in diameter at distances of up to 40,000 kms.
“The problem has not been the technology but getting the satellites to communicate with each other across such vast distances,” said a space agency spokesman.
The first relay satellite is already in place, and ground control is running a series of tests on the laser technology.
When the first satellite is declared fully operational, a second will be launched, followed by several others.
The network will then offer 24/7 global coverage.
The project is mostly funded by the German space authority, which has so far spent 280 million euros on developing the laser terminals.
“The entire network should be fully functional by 2020,” said the spokesman. “We are setting a new standard for space communication technology and expect to transmit huge volumes of data which will also mean refitting equipment in ground stations to handle the load.”