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Norway resorts to ship-watching from space

Jonathan Amos | 08:10 UK time, Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Norway's coastline is huge. The mainland's rim stretches for more than 2,500km but if you measure it to include all the fjords and nooks and crannies, it comes out at more than 25,000km.

Norway watersLittle wonder then that the Scandinavian nation relies heavily on satellites to help it monitor what's going on around its territory.

And it has a fascinating mission launching in the next few days that will enable it to keep even better watch on its waters.

AISSat-1 is what's termed a nano-sat. It's a small cube measuring 20cm along the square and weighing just 6kg, but it carries a clever little instrument.

It will track the movement of all large ships moving around Norway by picking up the signals from their AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders.

All vessels over 300 gross tonnes (and all passenger ships) now have to carry AIS.

It is, in first instance, a short-range ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore system that details not just position, course, and speed, but also information about a ship's type, draught, cargo - even its captain.

Model of AISSat-1You can get an idea of what AIS is capable of doing by clicking on this link which goes to a page that does live tracking off Stavanger.

The limitation of AIS is that communication with a coastal receiving station is line of sight, meaning it's possible to keep track of vessels to no more than about 50-70km off shore (unless you put another receiver on a rig, say).

And with Norwegian territorial waters encompassing two million square km, you can see why the national authorities might want to boost the effectiveness of the system.

Bo Andersen, director general of the Norwegian Space Centre, told me:

"Norway has the largest sea area to mange in Europe. And this area is the source for a lot of Norwegian income, from oil to fisheries. And we want to manage these resources in the best possible manner; and we do that now with radar satellites that give us quite a good overview about where ships are. But they don't give us knowledge about which ships they are.
 
"Of course, the fisheries authorities and the coastguard can go out in aeroplanes and check the ships, but we are talking about an area that's bigger than the Mediterranean. So we want a more efficient system.
 
"Along our coast, we have lanes where ships must go. There are strict rules on how close vessels can come to the coast, and for different types of cargo you might want ships to go further away. With this system you can follow if those ships are following the lanes they're obliged to."

Norway has already tested Space-AIS with a special receiver flown on the space station. This is the source of the remarkable maps posted on this page.

AIS tracks across the globeIn the above image, the progress of Norwegian ships (black arrows) is tracked on successive ISS passes. The map at the bottom shows a close-up view of the North Pacific.

The Norwegian Space Centre is adamant that the country's only interest is to monitor what vessels are doing in its waters. AISSat-1, when it gets into orbit, will not be collecting data to sell to other parts of the world. Bo Andersen again:

"The International Maritime Organisation has set down a working group to find out what sort of regulations there should be on AIS from space. It is clear that this type of information is very sensitive. It's commercially sensitive in that it tells you where your competitor's boats are. It is security sensitive in that it could tell a pirate off Somalia which ships are coming that would be a good sitting duck with a lot of money. So this is not the type of system you would want to become completely open."

Certainly, AISSat-1 is going to become a very valuable tool for the Norwegians. Its waters are likely to get ever more crowded in future years.

One can imagine that if Arctic sea-ice continues its retreat, more fisheries vessels will want to come into the region, and many more cargo ships will want to make use of the North East Passage.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Norway is already talking about an AISSat-2 even before AISSat-1 has left the ground.

AIS tracks near Alaska

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