Remote Sensing Goes Cold

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

Remote sensing over the Polar Regions has poked its head above the ice recently.

On the 8th February The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, published a paper by Smith et al titled ’Connected sub glacial lake drainage beneath Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica’. It described how researchers used data from ESA’s CryoSat-2 satellite to look at lakes beneath a glacier.

This work is interesting from a remote sensing viewpoint as it is a repurposing of Cryosat-2’s mission. It’s main purpose is to measure the thickness of the ice sheets and marine ice cover using its Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)/Interferometric Radar Altimeter, known as SIRAL, and it can detect millimetre changes in the elevation of both ice-sheets and sea-ice.

The team were able to use this data to determine that the ice of the glacier had subsided by several metres as water had drained away from four lakes underneath. Whilst the whole process took place between June 2012 and January 2014, the majority of the drainage happened in a six month period. During this time it’s estimated that peak drainage was around 240 cubic metre per second, which is four times faster than the outflow of the River Thames into the North Sea.

We’ve previously highlighted that repurposing data – using data for more purposes than originally intended – is going to be one of the key future innovation trends for Earth Observation.

Last week, ESA also described how Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data have been used over the last five months to monitor a crack in the ice near to the Halley VI research base of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The crack, known as Halloween Crack, is located on the Brunt ice Shelf in the Wedell Sea sector of Antarctica and was identified last October. The crack grew around 600 m per day during November and December, although it has since slowed to only one third of that daily growth.

Since last November Sentinel-2 has been acquiring optical images at each overflight, and this has been combined with SAR data from the two Sentinel-1 satellites. This SAR data will be critical during the Antarctic winter when there are only a few hours of daylight and a couple of weeks around mid-June when the sun does not rise.

This work hit the headlines as BAS decided to evacuate their base for the winter, due to the potential threat. The Halley VI base, which was only 17km from the crack, is the first Antarctic research station to be specifically designed to allow relocation to cope with this sort of movement in the ice shelf. It was already planned to move the base 23 km further inland, and this was successfully completed on the 2nd February. Further movement will depend on how the Halloween Crack develops over the winter.

Finally, the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) project was announced this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Markus Rex outlined the project, which will sail a research vessel into the Arctic sea ice and let it get stuck so it can drift across the North Pole. The vessel will be filled with a variety of remote sensing in-situ instruments, and will aim to collect data on how the climate is changing in this part of the world through measuring the atmosphere-ice-ocean system.

These projects show that the Polar Regions have a lot of interest, and variety, for remote sensing.

Plymouth Student’s Shot at Space!

From left to right: Fraser Searle (President), Sam Kennerley (Secretary) of Plymouth University Space Society, with the equipment to launch the balloon.

Plymouth University’s Space Society is planning to send a small shot glass ‘into space’ attached to a weather balloon in the coming week.

The aim is to send the glass 100,000 feet above the Earth, equivalent to 30 kilometres, and then bring it back safely. On its return, in true student fashion, they intend to use the glass to drink a few ‘space cocktails’!

The idea for launching the weather balloon began last summer when Fraser Searle and Nick Hardacre, who lead the Space Society at Plymouth University, were looking for ways to create interest in space in the local community. They originally hoped to send a bottle of local gin up, but soon found the challenges of working in a sub zero environment. It would have taken a balloon one and half times the size of the current one and double the volume of helium, so they changed to the shot glass.

They’ll also be attaching cameras and tracking equipment to the six metre diameter balloon to record and monitor the journey. The students have a roller coaster of emotions at the moment as Fraser explained, “We’re feeling excited, but I do get waves of nerves as to whether the glass and the cameras will return unharmed. We’re also wondering if the pictures and videos will be clear.”

Technically, the weather balloon won’t get into space. It should reach the upper half of the stratosphere, an area known as near space. As this area stretches from 20km to 100km above the Earth, ‘near’ is a relative term.

Pixalytics got involved with the project before Christmas, when we helped with sponsorship to enable the students to finish purchasing the necessary equipment. We’re also hoping to provide support in reviewing and interpreting the images the cameras collect on the journey. It’ll be interesting to compare what the weather balloon sees, with what various satellite imagery shows.

We’re strong supporters of events that encourage students and early career scientists to enhance their understanding of remote sensing, space and science. We sponsor student conferences and prizes that take place in the UK. So, it’s fantastic to get involved in something much closer to home.

Launching a weather balloon requires permission from the Civil Aviation Authority, and is also highly weather dependent. A planned launched at the end of January had to be abandoned as the balloon was likely to end up in Portsmouth or Calais harbour.

However, the team have once again got the relevant permissions to try again this coming week. The exact launch date will depend on the wind and weather patterns around Plymouth, which are always fairly turbulent. Fraser said, “We’ll be glued to the online predictors to find a launch slot.”

This is great local project for Plymouth, and we’re pleased to be able to support it. We have our fingers crossed for suitable weather, but only time will tell if they manage to conquer space!

World Record Satellite Launch

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Next week the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to launch 104 satellites in one go aboard its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) that will take off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

To give an idea of the enormity of what ISRO is attempting, the current world record for satellites launched in a single mission is 37 by Russia in 2014. In addition, over the last fifty years the average number of objects launched in space in an entire year is only 138, according to the Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Furthermore these figures reveal this single mission will exceed the number of objects launched into space for the twelve months of 1996 and for the years 2001 to 2006 inclusive.

This mission was originally planned to launch 83 satellites, then an additional 20 were added to the payload and finally a further nano-satellite was squeezed in. Of these 104 satellites, 3 will be Indian satellites and the remainder will be small satellites from countries including Germany, Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US.

One of the key challenges is to ensure that they do not collide. ISRO plans to achieve this by changing the degree of angle for each batch of satellites launched. It is expected that the entire batch of satellites will be launched within 90 minutes.

This launch is a really exciting one for the Earth Observation community because it includes:

  • Cartosat 2D is the next satellite in India’s Cartosat mission. These satellites carry both high resolution multi- spectral imagers and a panchromatic camera, and the mission focus is cartography. It has a sub-metre spatial resolution, a 10 km swath and a revisit period of four days. This is the primary payload, and will be the heaviest satellite on the launch vehicle at 730 kg.
  • Planet’s Flock 3p which consists of 88 satellites, and will be the largest constellation of satellites ever launched.

Planet was in the news last week as it confirmed it had completed the purchase of satellite imaging company Terra Bella from Google. Terra Bella’s SkySat’s fleet of high resolution satellites will complement the existing global coverage of Planet’s existing courser resolution fleet. When combined with the new satellites, this will help Planet to achieve their aim of imaging the entire globe every day. Thereby, offering a wide range of potential capabilities for Planet in the satellite data reseller/supplier market.

ISRO’s launch is currently scheduled for February 15th and will demonstrate a new level of efficiency for cubesats; something that is becoming increasingly important. We’ll be watching closely, and wish them luck.

Supporting Chimpanzee Conservation from Space

Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Acquired by Sentinel-2 in December 2016. Image courtesy of ESA.

Being able to visualise the changing face of the planet over time is one of the greatest strengths of satellite remote sensing. Our previous blog showed how Dubai’s coastline has evolved over a decade, and last week NASA described interesting work they’re doing on monitoring habitat loss for chimpanzees in conjunction with the Jane Goodall Institute.

Jane Goodall has spent over fifty years working to protect and conserve chimpanzees from the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, and formed the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977. The Institute works with local communities to provide sustainable conservation programmes.

A hundred years ago more than one million chimpanzees lived in Africa, today the World Wildlife Fund estimate the population may only be around 150,000 to 250,000. The decline is stark. For example, the Ivory Coast populations have declined by 90% within the last twenty years.

One of the key factors contributing to this decline is habitat loss, mostly through deforestation; although other factors such as hunting, disease and illegal capture also contributed.

Forests cover around 31% of the planet, and deforestation occurs when trees are removed and the land has another use instead of being a forest. In chimpanzee habitats, the deforestation is mostly due to logging, mining and drilling for oil. This change in land use can be monitored from space using remote sensing. Satellites produce regular images which can be used to monitor changes in the natural environment, in turn giving valuable information to conservation charities and other organisations.

In 2000 Lilian Pintea, from the Jane Goodall Institute, was shown Landsat images comparing the area around the Gombe National Park in 1972 and 1999. The latter image showed huge deforestation outside the park’s boundary. The Institute have continued to use Landsat imagery to monitor what is happening around the National Park. In 2009 they began a citizen science project with local communities giving them smartphones to report their observations. Combining these with ongoing satellite data from NASA has helped develop and implement local plans for land use and protection of the forests. Further visualisation of this work can be found here. The image at the top was acquired Sentinel-2 in December 2016 and shows the Gombe National Park, although it is under a little haze.

The satellite data supplied by NASA comes from the Landsat missions, which currently have an archive of almost forty-five years of satellite data, which is freely available to anyone. We also used Landsat for data in our Dubai animation last week. Landsat captures optical data, which means it operates in a similar manner to the human eye – although the instruments also have infrared capabilities. However, one drawback of optical instruments is that they cannot see through clouds. Therefore, whilst Landsat is great for monitoring land use when there are clear skies, it can be combined with synthetic aperture radar (SAR), from the microwave spectrum, as it can see through both clouds and smoke. This combination enables land use and land change to monitored anywhere in the world. Using the freely available Landsat and Sentinel-1 SAR data you could monitor what is happening to the forests in your neighbourhoods.

Satellite data is powerful tool for monitoring changes in the environment, and with the archive of data available offers a unique opportunity to see what has happened over the last four decades.

Islands of Sand

Animation showing the creation of islands in Dubai between 2001 & 2009 using Landsat images. Data courtesy of NASA.

This week we’re focusing on the development of Dubai’s land-coast interface between July 2001 and October 2009, looking specifically at the creation of the Palm islands and the World Archipelago. Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, home to 2.7 million people as of January 2017. In a place where Dubai police vehicles include a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, and where it’s possible to buy gold bars from vending machines perhaps it’s not surprising to see the creation of extravagant islands.

Palm Islands & The World Archipelago

In the animation at the top of the blog, the development of the Palm Islands and The World Archipelago are clearly visible. The first island created was Palm Jumeirah, the smallest of the three planned palm islands, and can be seen just off centre on the animation. It consists of a tree trunk, a crown with seventeen fronds and a surrounding crescent, and is approximately 25 square kilometres in size. Construction began in 2001 and was completed in 2006. The workers used GPS signals to determine the correct place to deposit sand to create the palm effect.

Built in tandem were the Palm Jebel Ali and The World Archipelago. Construction began in 2002 and was expected to be completed in 2015, however work stopped in 2008 due to the financial crisis. Work has remained suspended on Palm Jebel Ali, but development on the World may be about to start. The World has three hundred islands reclaimed from the sea, but most of them are bare sand. In the last twelve months there have been rumours that ‘The Heart of Europe’ project and floating seahorses around St Petersburg island could be developed in the near future.

It is also possible to see the preliminary creation of Palm Deira at the top of the animation. 300 million cubic metres of sand were used to form the initial reclamation. However, between 2009 and 2016 there has been no further development.

Images of Dubai in 2001, left, and 2009 taken by Landsat 7. Data courtesy of NASA.

It is also worth noting the significant urban sprawl between the first and last images. Dubai’s population increased by 95%, from 910,336 to 1,770,978, during the period we’re looking at and whilst the growth of Dubai is obvious, it is particularly visible southeast of the Palm Jumeirah development.

Creating the Time Series Animation

The animation was created using the first (blue) visible band of the Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) instrument. In May 2003, the scan line corrector – used to compensate for forward motion of the spacecraft, ensuring scan lines are parallel – failed. Consequently, the instrument images in a zigzag fashion; some data is captured twice, whilst some is not captured at all. As a result, 22 % of data in Landsat 7 images post May 2003 are missing. To compensate for this we’ve used a Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL) tool to fill “no data” regions by interpolating from nearby valid pixels. The results, whilst not perfect, are nearly indistinguishable at this resolution.

Impacts of the Islands

The development of these islands has not been without its criticism as it has impacted the local ecology. The dredging of sand has increased the turbidity of the seawater, with sediment transport evident in the animation, which has damaged coral reefs. In addition, water around parts of the islands can remain almost stationary for weeks, increasing the risk of algal blooms. Whilst fish have returned to these waters, they are not the same species as were there before.

Viewed from space, both the speed and scale of the development is mesmerising. It is no surprise that tourism is a vitally important part of the local economy, attracting more than 13 million visitors in 2014. With the limitations of available land in Dubai, developments are sure to start again.

 

Blog produced by Tom Jones on work placement with Pixalytics Ltd.

Goodbye to EO-1

Hyperspectral data of fields in South America classified using Principle Components Analysis. Data acquired by Hyperion. Image courtesy of NASA.

In contrast to our previous blog, this week’s is a celebration of the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite whose death will soon be upon us.

EO-1 was launched on the 21st November 2000 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It has a polar sun-synchronous orbit at a height of 705 km, following the same orbital track as Landsat-7, but lagging one minute behind. It was put into this orbit to allow for a comparison with Landsat 7 images in addition to the evaluation of EO-1’s instruments.

It was the first in NASA’s New Millennium Program Earth Observing series, which had the aim of developing and testing advanced technology and land imaging instruments, particularly related to spatial, spectral and temporal characteristics not previously available.

EO-1 carries three main instruments:

  • Hyperion is an imaging spectrometer which collects data in 220 visible and infrared bands at 30 m spatial resolution with a 7.5 km x 100 km swath. Hyperion has offered a range of benefits to applications such as mining, geology, forestry, agriculture, and environmental management.
  • Advanced Land Imaging (ALI) is a multispectral imager capturing 9 bands at 30 m resolution, plus a panchromatic band at 10 m, with a swath width of 37 km. It has the same seven spectral bands as Landsat 7, although it collects data via a different method. ALI uses a pushbroom technique where the sensor acts like a broom head and collects data along a strip as if a broom was being pushed along the ground. Whereas Landsat operates a whiskbroom approach which involves several linear detectors (i.e., broom heads) perpendicular (at a right angle) to the direction of data collection. These detectors are stationary in the sensor and a mirror underneath sweeps the pixels from left to right reflecting the energy from the Earth into the detectors to collect the data.
  • Atmospheric Corrector (LAC) instrument allows the correction of imagery for atmospheric variability, primarily water vapour, by measuring the actual rate of atmospheric absorption, rather than using estimates.

The original EO-1 mission was only due to be in orbit only one year, but with a sixteen year lifetime it has surpassed all expectations. The extension of the one year mission was driven by the Earth observation user community who were very keen to continue with the data collection, and an agreement was reached with NASA to continue.

Psuedo-true colour hyperspectral data of fields in South America. Data acquired by Hyperion. Image courtesy of NASA.

All the data collect by both Hyperion and ALI is freely available through the USGS Centre for Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS). At Pixalytics we’ve used Hyperion data for understanding the capabilities of hyperspectral data. The two images shown in the blog are a subset of a scene acquired over fields in South America, with image to the right is a pseudo-true colour composite stretched to show the in-field variability.

Whereas the image at the top is the hyperspectral data classified using a statistical procedure, called Principle Components Analysis (PCA), which extracts patterns from within the dataset. The first three derived uncorrelated variables, termed principle components, are shown as a colour composite.

Sadly, satellites cannot go on forever, and EO-1 is in its final few weeks of life. It stopped accepting data acquisition requests on the 6th January 2017, and will stop providing data by the end of February.

It has been a great satellite, and will be sadly missed.

Earth Observation Looking Good in 2017!

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

2017 is looking like an exciting one for Earth Observation (EO), judging by the number of significant satellites planned for launch this year.

We thought it would be interesting to give an overview of some of the key EO launches we’ve got to look forward to in the next twelve months.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has planned launches of:

  • Sentinel-2B in March, Sentinel-5p in June and Sentinel-3B in August – all of which we discussed last week.
  • ADM-Aeolus satellite is intended to be launched by the end of the year carrying an Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument. This is essentially a lidar instrument which will provide global measurements of wind profiles from ground up to the stratosphere with 0.5 to 2 km vertical resolution.

From the US, both NASA and NOAA have important satellite launches:

  • NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) Mission is planned for June, and will provide observations of Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere; exploring the boundary between Earth and space.
  • NASA’s ICESat-2 in November that will measure ice sheet elevation, ice sheet thickness changes and the Earth’s vegetation biomass.
  • In June NOAA will be launching the first of its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) missions, a series of next-generation polar-orbiting weather observatories.
  • Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment – Follow-On (GRACE_FO) are a pair of twin satellites to extend measurements from the GRACE satellite, maintaining data continuity. These satellites use microwaves to measure the changes in the Earth’s gravity fields to help map changes in the oceans, ice sheets and land masses. It is planned for launch right at the end of 2017, and is a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

Some of the other launches planned include:

  • Kanopus-V-IK is a small Russian remote sensing satellite with an infrared capability to be used for forest fire detection. It has a 5 m by 5 m spatial resolution over a 2000 km swath, and is planned to be launched next month.
  • Vegetation and Environment monitoring on a New MicroSatellite (VENµS), which is partnership between France and Israel has a planned launch of August. As its name suggests it will be monitoring ecosytems, global carbon cycles, land use and land change.
  • KhalifaSat is the third EO satellite of United Arab Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST). It is an optical satellite with a spatial resolution of 0.75 m for the visible and near infrared bands.

Finally, one of the most intriguing launches involves three satellites that form the next part of India’s CartoSat mission. These satellites will carry both high resolution multi- spectral imagers and a panchromatic camera, and the mission’s focus is cartography. It’s not these three satellites that make this launch intriguing, it is the one hundred other satellites that will accompany them!

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-C37, will aim to launch a record 103 satellites in one go. Given that the current record for satellites launched in one go is 37, and that over the last few years we’ve only had around two hundred and twenty satellites launched in an entire year; this will be a hugely significant achievement.

So there you go. Not a fully comprehensive list, as I know there will be others, but hopefully it gives you a flavour of what to expect.

It certainly shows that the EO is not slowing down, and the amount of data available is continuing to grow. This of course gives everyone working in the industry more challenges in terms of storage and processing power – but they are good problems to have. Exciting year ahead!

Will Earth Observation’s power base shift in 2017?

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972. Image Credit: NASA

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972.
Image Credit: NASA

We’re only a few days into 2017, but this year may see the start of a seismic shift in the Earth Observation (EO) power base.

We’ve previously described how the sustainable EO industry really began this week thirty nine years ago. On 6th January 1978 NASA deactivated Landsat-1; it had already launched Landsat-2, carrying the same sensors, three years earlier and with guaranteed data continuity our industry effectively began.

Since then the USA, though the data collected by NASA and NOAA satellites, has led the EO global community. This position was cemented in 2008 when it made all Landsat data held by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) freely available, via the internet, to anyone in the world. This gave scientists three decades worth of data to start investigating how the planet had changed, and companies sprang up offering services based entirely on Landsat data. This model of making data freely available has been so transformational, that the European Union decided to follow it with its Copernicus Programme.

Landsat-1 and 2 were followed by 4, 5, 7 & 8 – sadly Landsat 6 never made its orbit – and Landsat 9 is planned for launch in 2020. The USA’s role EO leadership has never been in question, until now.

US President-elect Donald Trump and his team have already made a number of statements indicating that they intended to cut back on NASA’s Earth Science activities. There are a variety of rumours suggesting reasons for this change of approach. However, irrespective of the reason, slashing the current $2 billion Earth Science budget will have huge consequences. Whilst all of this is just conjecture at the moment, the reality will be seen after 20th January.

Against this America backdrop sits the Copernicus Programme, with the European Space Agency due to launch another three satellites this year:

  • Sentinel 2B is planned for March. This is the second of the twin constellation optical satellites offering a spatial resolution of 10 m for the visible bands. The constellation will revisit the same spot over the equator every five days, with a shorter temporal resolution for higher latitudes.
  • June is the scheduled month for the launch of the Sentinel 5 Precursor EO satellite to measure air quality, ozone, pollution and aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere. This will be used to reduce the data gaps between Envisat, which ended in 2012, and the launch of Sentinel-5.
  • Sentinel 3B is due to launched in the middle of the year, and like 2B is the second in a twin satellite constellation. This pair is mainly focussed on the oceans and measure sea surface topography, sea and land surface temperature, and ocean and land colour. It will provide global coverage every two days with Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) and the Ocean and Land Colour Instrument (OLCI).

These launches will take give the Copernicus programme seven satellites collecting a wide variety of optical and radar data across the entire planet, which is then made freely available to anyone. It’s obvious to see what will fill any vacuum created by a reduction in Earth Science in the USA.

Depending on how much of the next US President’s rhetoric is turned into action, we may start to see the shift of the EO power base to Europe. Certainly going to be an interesting year ahead!

Have you read the top Pixalytics blogs of 2016?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

As this is the final blog of the year we’d like to take a look back over the past fifty-two weeks and see which blog’s captured people’s attention, and conversely which did not!

It turns out that seven of the ten most widely viewed blogs of the last year weren’t even written in 2016. Four were written in 2015, and three were written in 2014! The other obvious trend is the interest in the number of satellites in space, which can be seen by the titles of six of the ten most widely read blogs:

We’ve also found these blogs quoted by a variety of other web pages, and the occasional report. It’s always interesting to see where we’re quoted!

The other most read blogs of the year were:

Whilst only three of 2016’s blogs made our top ten, this is partly understandable as they have less time to attract the interest of readers and Google. However, looking at most read blogs of 2016 shows an interest in the growth of the Earth Observation market, Brexit, different types of data and Playboy!

We’ve now completed three years of weekly blogs, and the views on our website have grown steadily. This year has seen a significant increase in viewed pages, which is something we’re delighted to see.

We like our blog to be of interest to our colleagues in remote sensing and Earth observation, although we also touch on issues of interest to the wide space, and small business, communities.

At Pixalytics we believe strongly in education and training in both science and remote sensing, together with supporting early career scientists. As such we have a number of students and scientists working with us during the year, and we always like them to write a blog. Something they’re not always keen on at the start! This year we’ve had pieces on:

Writing a blog each week can be hard work, as Wednesday mornings always seem to come around very quickly. However, we think this work adds value to our business and makes a small contribution to explaining the industry in which we work.

Thanks for reading this year, and we hope we can catch your interest again next year.

We’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a very successful 2017!