16 Russian satellites embark on a mission for maritime oversight

On the last day of February, Russia made headlines by launching a Soyuz-2-1b rocket into space. The spacecraft was filled with 16 Russian-made ASTRO-AIS automatic identification system satellites.

16 Russian satellites embark on a mission for maritime oversight
Photo credit: Roscosmos

Other essential payloads included a Russian meteorological satellite named Meteor-M2-4, the Zorky-2M Earth observation satellite, also Russian-built, as well as the Iranian Pars-1 satellite, designed for earth observation. The stage was set and the launch was successfully carried out from the Vostochny spaceport. 

The 16 ASTRO-AIS satellites aboard the Soyuz-2-1b deserve special mention. These satellites serve a unique role. They’re engineered mainly for marine tracking, surveillance, and monitoring. AIS is a communications system used by sea vessels, which allows the exchange of identifying info and positional data, offering comprehensive insights into ship movements, positions, and other vital information. 

The brilliance behind the ASTRO-AIS satellites’ design lies in their ability to capture these AIS signals sent from sea vessels. This capability allows for global oversight of maritime traffic, enhancing safety and boosting the efficiency of maritime operations. 

These satellites have numerous uses including avoiding vessel collisions, maintaining maritime area knowledge, assisting in search and rescue efforts, and monitoring and preventing illegal activities at sea. 

The International Maritime Organization [IMO] has mandated that AIS equipment is compulsory on all ships, irrespective of size, involved in passenger service, and cargo ships weighing more than 500 gross tonnes on local voyages and those above 300 gross tons on international voyages. 

16 Russian satellites embark on a mission for maritime oversight
Photo credit: Reddit

Data bursts from AIS transponders are automated and happen at regular intervals. Navigation status data is transmitted every 2 to 180 seconds, depending on the vessel’s movement. Additionally, data related to the voyage is broadcast every 6 minutes. These signals can be picked up by other ships equipped with AIS or land-based systems. 

Military purpose

The AIS system was initially designed to prevent ship collisions, but over time, due to its effective tracking and oversight abilities, it has evolved into a versatile multi-purpose tool. For example, tracking and monitoring the activities of military vessels and coast guards, provides vital data for military and security operations. 

However, it’s crucial to note that not all sea vessels are required to install AIS transponders. Some warships may choose to turn off their transponders for security reasons, indicating that while ASTRO-AIS satellites can effectively monitor numerous military and coast guard vessels, some might remain undetected. 

Russian Kondor-FKA space radar satellite sees Ukraine twice a day
Photo credit: NPO Mashinostroyeniya

With a cruising altitude of roughly 700 kilometers around the Earth, ASTRO-AIS satellites can oversee vast swathes of the ocean. This unique design enables them to receive AIS signals from thousands of vessels at once, making them a potent global maritime traffic monitoring tool.  

In conclusion, information gathered by ASTRO-AIS satellites can be amalgamated with additional data sources like radar and optical satellite imagery to provide a more extensive view of maritime activities. This combined data approach assists in mitigating certain limitations associated with AIS data, such as the potential for vessels to turn off their transponders.

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