Skip to content

You are here: Home / Missions & Projects / ONION


EU-funded H2020 research project "Operational Network of Individual Observation Nodes", coordinated by Thales Alenia Space.

H2020 ONION logo

Operational Network of Individual Observation Nodes

ONION in a nutshell

The ONION project, co-funded under the Horizon 2020 EU research and development programme, has the ambition of identifying and characterising solutions to meet emerging needs in the European Earth Observation market by exploring Fractionated and Federated Satellite Systems (FFSS), which aim at proposing an evolution of constellations  such as Planet.

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.

Read more


Over the next few years, Europe will take important steps towards implementing the architecture of the Copernicus Space segment for Earth Observation, fulfilling the needs of stakeholders concerned with land monitoring, marine monitoring, atmosphere monitoring, emergency management, Security, and climate change. This context calls for the review of emerging fractionated observation system concepts, as potential means to ensure competitive imaging from Space. Europe will need to consider the system architecture of these innovative concepts as a whole. The system attributes that relevant stakeholders have asked for, such as monitoring performance, risk mitigation, cost effectiveness, and responsiveness, must be considered and built in at the system architecting stage.

As part of the challenge, Europe needs to consider the evolution of the Space-based imagery market worldwide and how to adapt to its changes. The market recently experienced acceleration, with players such as Google and Planet Labs in the USA, with innovative Earth Observation solutions, and mainly based on small satellite platforms. Using non-conventional approaches such as big data, cloud computing, and the use of high-performance instrumentation, new market entrants in North America intend to provide high resolution, unprecedented high revisit time imaging and full motion videos of the Earth’s surface, providing conventional and innovative services such as competitive business analytics based on Space imaging.

Non-Space technologies such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and stratospheric balloons are also being looked at potential alternative solutions to serve certain market needs in Earth imaging. Likewise in the Russian Federation, Dauria Aerospace is set to innovate the Earth Imaging market with its investment in high resolution, multispectral small satellite platforms, and recent interest demonstrated in cloud-based Space data products based on big data approaches.

The Space industry is experiencing similar innovation thrusts in other sectors; Space-based Security applications will pick up on the aforementioned emerging technologies, spurring a demand for increased revisit times, and real-time information for detection, alert and imaging. In Space telecommunications, IRIDIUM has recently offered the opportunity to fly hosted payloads on board of its satellite fleet, whereas Virgin and Qualcomm are investing in Space-based Internet connectivity through OneWeb Ltd. Space-based imaging, Security needs, and telecommunications, when considered in synergy, have the potential of creating new markets and services in Earth Observation.

The ONION concept is proposed to supplement in a progressive way the current European Earth Observation infrastructures (e.g. Copernicus, Earth Explorer missions...), to serve emerging needs in an optimal manner. Such complementary approaches are required to ensure that Europe will keep its competitiveness to serve the future scientific needs, for new market niches, and possibly keep a leading edge ahead of competition as Earth Observation transitions could lead to public private partnership business models or the transfer of a government-owned capability operated by government agencies to a commercial service in a free market operated by multiple stakeholders such as companies, SMEs, and universities.


The goal of this project is to enable mission designers and implementers to decide which fractionated and federated ONION concepts to develop for competitive imaging from Space, and establish the requirements for communications support.

  1. Objective 1: To review the emerging fractionated and federated observation system concepts;
  2. Objective 2: To identify potential benefits to be obtained in light of observation needs in different Earth Observation domains;
  3. Objective 3: To identify key required technology challenges entailed by the emerging fractionated and federated satellite system concepts, to be faced in Horizon 2021-2027;
  4. Objective 4: To validate observation needs with the respective user communities to be fit for purpose in terms of scientific and commercial applications;
  5. Objective 5: To propose an overall strategy and technical guidelines to implement such concepts at Horizon 2021-2027.


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, has had a total duration of 24 months and was successfully completed in December 2017.

Logos of ONION consortium partners

UPC contributions

Technical University of Catalonia, as one of the academic partners, has focused the research on: distributed remote sensing technologies; small satellite platforms; system-level design and optimization of FFSS architectures; and network aspects of these novel kinds of systems.