Foiling pirates from outer space
International Space Station helps deter would-be hijackers by monitoring the oceans from outer space.
Mon, Jan 11, 2010 at 10:35 AM
AHOY: The Spanish fishing boat Alakrana was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. (Photo: Associated Press)
Law enforcement may soon have a new ally in the fight against ship hijackings — the International Space Station.
Two new receivers to be tested this year from space could fill gaps in the current system that tracks ships traversing oceans around the world, Discovery News and msnbc.com reported. The enhanced detection system could help ships avoid collisions, as well as deter potential hijackings.
With high-sea piracy in the news, scientists say enhancing current detection technology could be a major deterrent against would-be hijackers.
“Clearly the possibility to monitor the correct route of ships in the open seas can be a big advantage for discouraging pirate attacks,” said the experiment's project manager, Giovanni Garofalo.
The current monitoring system relies on VHF radio signals that have a horizontal range of about 40 miles. (As a result, anyone tracking the progress of a given ship can do so only when it is near shore or within range of another ship.)
By contrast, the Automatic Identification System signals can travel vertically, and far higher. But AIS systems — currently required on international vessels weighing more than 300 metric tons, cargo ships more than 500 metric tons and all passenger vessels — can also pose a problem, since the signals share a frequency and often collide.
Now, scientists say receivers can be programmed to enhance AIS detection and to separate individual signals without confusion.
In November, during NASA’s last shuttle mission, astronauts installed a custom-made VHF antenna to Europe’s Columbus module. A refurbished computer that will be used to route data will be delivered to the space station in March, when the two receivers will begin a one-year experiment of tracking ships.
“In principle, any boat, of any nationality, with a standard transmitter could be detected in any sea,” so long as it is within the space station’s orbit, said Martin Zell, head of the International Space Station Utilization Department for the European Space Agency. “What we try to test is the capability to discriminate in waters populated by many ships which signals are simultaneously collected by the receivers.”