ONION: a project overview

Operational Network of Individual Observation Nodes

  • ONION artist's impression (source: Thales Alenia Space)

The space industry is currently witnessing two concurrent trends: the increased modularity and miniaturisation of technologies and the deployment of constellations of distributed satellite systems, such as Planet. As a consequence of the first trend, the relevance of small satellites in line with the “cheaper and faster” philosophy is increasing. The second one opens up completely new horizons by enabling the design of architectures aimed at improving the performance, reliability, and efficiency of current and future space missions.

Visionary entrepreneurs like Elon Musk believe that the Grand Challenge today is “to find a Moore's Law of space”, which means that there is a strong need to think exponentially and recognise opportunities for disruptive innovation. The ONION project (“Operational Network of Individual Observation Nodes”) will leverage on the concept of Fractionated and Federated Satellite Systems in order to develop and design innovative mission architectures which will result in competitive advantages for European Earth Observation (EO) systems.

A consortium of 8 partners, European and Russian, coordinated by Thales Alenia Space France kicked-off the ONION project in mid-January in Brussels. This 2.6 Million Euro project, co-funded under the Horizon 2020 EU research and development programme, will have a total duration of 24 months. The team, starting from the analysis of emerging needs in the European Earth Observation market, will identify and characterise solutions to meet these needs by exploring the opportunities offered by Fractionated and Federated Satellite Systems (FFSS).

In analogy with terrestrial networks, these systems envision the distribution of satellite functionalities amongst multiple cooperating spacecraft (which are seen as the nodes of a network), flying on different orbits, for various applications ranging from Earth Observation to Space Science. ONION focuses on a pragmatic, progressive, and scalable approach to improve existing and future space missions in order to foster competitive European imaging from space.

A gradual evolution is foreseen, transitioning from established “old-school” paradigms to innovative concepts, while always keeping the user requirements at the centre of the design process. In order to meet these goals, the team will produce a systematic analysis of stakeholder needs, an exhaustive exploration of applicable systems architectures, a technological roadmap, as well as a definition of potential operational concepts. 

Fractionated and Federated satellite systems are considered by many as the future of space-based infrastructures. A step-by-step process is required, starting with small spacecraft aimed at improving the mission of a larger one up to fully-fledged federations of satellites sharing on-orbit resources in an opportunistic fashion while carrying out independent missions. These new scenarios provide very significant opportunities for the Earth Observation market and the ONION project will aim at the frontier of the design of such architectures to enable European decision makers to shape the technological solutions for the future of Earth Observation in Europe.


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