What do colours mean in satellite imagery?

False colour image of phytoplankton blooming off the coast of Patagonia. Acquired 2nd Dec 2014. Image Courtesy of NASA/NASA's Earth Observatory

Phytoplankton blooming off the coast of Patagonia on 2nd Dec 2014.
Image Courtesy of NASA/NASA’s Earth Observatory

Satellite images are a kaleidoscope of colours, all vying for attention. It’s important to be clear what the colours are showing, and more importantly, what they may not be showing, to interpret the image correctly. For example, a patch of white on an image might indicate snow or ice, sunglint off the ocean, fog or it could just mean it was cloudy.

On the earth’s surface different colours represent different land types:

  • Vegetation appears as shades of green from pale for grasslands to dark for forests – although some forests will progress from green to orange to brown in autumn.
  • Ocean colour is significantly influenced by phytoplankton, which can produce a range of blue and green colours. A fantastic example of this can be seen in the image at the top of the blog showing phytoplankton blooming off the cost of Patagonia.
  • Snow and ice can appear white, grey, or slightly blue.

As noted in the opening, colours can also mislead with cloud cover being the natural nemesis of optical remote sensing. However, you also have to be careful with effects such as:

  • Smoke: ranges from brown to grey to black.
  • Haze: a pale grey or a dirty white.
  • Dust: can be brown, like bare ground, but also white, red and black.
  • Shadow: Clouds or mountain shadows can look like dark surface features.

There is a good article here from NASA’s Earth Observatory giving more details on the different colours of surface land types. So far, we’ve focussed on natural colour signatures; but man-made structures also appear on imagery. Generally, urban areas tend to be silver or grey in colour; although larger objects also show up in their own right such as the bright red roof of Ferrari World in the middle of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit – as discussed in a previous blog.

Composite Google Earth image of the entrance to the Panama Canal: Data courtesy of DigitalGlobe

Composite Google Earth image of the entrance to the Panama Canal: Data courtesy of DigitalGlobe

We tried to repeat the identification of man-made objects for this blog using the coloured roofs of the Biomuseo building, located on the Amador Causeway – at the entrance to the Panama Canal in the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, Landsat 8 pixels are too coarse; and Google Earth has fallen prey to cloud cover preventing visibility, as shown in the image on the right. What you can see though is the buildings in Panama City and the yachts in the marinas and clustered around the four islands (Naos, Perico, Culebra and Flamenco) at the end of the Amador Causeway.

The final thing to remember when considering colours, is the format of the image itself. Some images use true-colours from the red, green and blue wavelengths, which produce colours as if you were looking at the scene directly, so trees are green, sea is blue, etc. However, other images incorporate infrared light to enhance the detection of features not easily distinguished on a true-colour image; this means colours aren’t what you would expect, for example, the ocean may appear red.

Colour is central to use of satellite imagery, but you need to know the properties of the rainbow you are looking at or you may never find the pot of satellite gold.

The Small and Mighty Proba Missions

This week the European Space Agency announced the latest mission in the Project for OnBoard Automony (PROBA) mini-satellite programme. Proba-3 is planned to launch in four years; and will be a pair of satellites flying in close formation, 150m apart, with the front satellite creating an artificial eclipse of the sun allowing its companion views of the solar corona; normally only visible momentarily during solar eclipses.

Tamar estuary captured in October 2005, data courtesy of ESA.

Tamar estuary captured in October 2005, data courtesy of ESA.

The Proba missions are part of ESA’s In-orbit Technology Demonstration Programme, which focuses on testing, and using, innovative technologies in space. Despite Proba-3’s nomenclature, it will be the fourth mission in the Proba programme. The first, Proba-1, was launched on the 22nd October 2001 on a planned two year Earth observation (EO) mission; however despite the planned lifecycle, thirteen years later it is still flying and sending back EO data. It’s in a sun synchronous orbit with a seven-day repeat cycle and carries eight instruments. The main one is the Compact High Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (CHRIS), developed in the UK by the Space Group of Sira Technology Ltd that was later acquired by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. CHRIS is a hyperspectral sensor that acquires a set of up to five images of a target, with different modes allowing the collection of up to 62 spectral wavebands.

Plymouth, where Pixalytics is based, and our lead consultant, Dr Samantha Lavender, have a long history with Proba-1. Rame Head point, along the coast from Plymouth, is one of the test sites for the CHRIS instrument and she’s been doing research using the data it provides for over a decade. Over Plymouth Mode 2 is used, which focuses on mapping the water at a spatial resolution of 17m; this mode was proposed by Sam back in the early days of CHRIS-Proba. The image at the top of the page, captured in October 2005, shows the Tamar estuary in the UK that separates the counties of Devon and Cornwall; for this image CHRIS was pointed further North due to planned fieldwork activities. At the bottom of the image is the thick line of the Tamar Road Bridge and below it, the thinner Brunel railway bridge. Plymouth is to the right of the bridge, and to the left is the Cornish town of Saltash.

Proba-V image of the Nile Delta in Egypt, courtesy of the Belgian PROBA-V / ESA Earth Watch programmes

Proba-V image of the Nile Delta in Egypt, courtesy of the Belgian PROBA-V / ESA Earth Watch programmes

Proba-2 was launched in 2009, carrying two solar observation experiments, two space weather experiments and seventeen other technology demonstrations. ESA returned to EO for the third mission, Proba-V, launched on the 7 May 2013; the change in nomenclature is because the V stands for vegetation sensor. It is a redesign of the ‘Vegetation’ imaging instrument carried on the French Spot satellites; it has a 350m ground resolution with a 2250km swath, and collects data in the blue, red, near-infrared and mid-infrared wavebands. It provides worldwide coverage every two days, and through its four spectral bands it can distinguish between different types of land cover. The image on the right is from Proba-V, showing the Nile delta on 2nd May 2014.

Despite their small stature all the Proba satellites are showing their resilience by remaining operational, and they’re playing a vital role in allowing innovative new technologies to be tested in space.

Science won’t be rushed!

Ocean currents derived from GOCE data. Image courtsey of ESA/CNES/CLS

Ocean currents derived from GOCE data
Image courtsey of ESA/CNES/CLS

Last week scientists presented the most accurate model of ocean currents created to date using data from the GOCE satellite; twelve months after the satellite burnt up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Immediacy is the standard bearer for the twenty-first century; social media allows everyone to tell the world the instant they’ve done anything, emails must be read as soon as they come in and there’s the frustration you feel when a web page takes a few seconds to load. Science doesn’t easily fit this world. The scientific method takes time; it’s about developing a hypothesis, experimenting to test that hypothesis, analysing the data and comparing it the original idea, and then often tweaking the hypothesis and repeating the cycle. Instant gratification is rarely found in this methodology, as shown by the GOCE work.

GOCE, the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Explorer, was launched in 2009. It was five metre long and was known as the ‘Ferrari of space’ due to its sleek design and the fact it was assembled in Italy; and was the lowest flying scientific satellite. Its main instrument was an Electrostatic Gravity Gradiometer which measured gravity gradients in all directions. It flew for four years running out of fuel in October 2013, and returned to earth a few weeks later.

GOCE’s instrumentation mapped minute changes in Earth’s gravity which were used to construct a ‘geoid’ – a hypothetical global ocean at rest – with an accuracy of 1-2cm at a 100km resolution. This geoid model was subtracted from the mean sea-surface height measured over a 20-year period by other satellites, including Envisat, to create a map of the ocean surface showing areas of water higher, and lower, than average. The map was then used to calculate ocean currents and speeds, and was validated through in situ measurements. The resulting model of ocean currents was presented at the 5th International GOCE User Workshop last week.

GOCE, like all satellites, collected a huge amount of data, which takes time to analyse. A similar example is likely to be the Philae probe which landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last month. During the sixty hours it was operational after landing; it sent streams of measurements back to Earth. Even without future communication with the probe, this data will take years to fully analyse, study and interpret. Who knows what scientific discoveries may be made from this?

You can’t rush science. It takes time, and effort, to get accurate and reliable scientific results. But those results have the potential to change our understanding of the world and help create innovations to improve the future of our planet and our lives. Now that’s worth waiting for isn’t it?

Small businesses: Think big on marketing

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Courtesy of Caterham F1

We sponsored two Caterham Formula One cars in last weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which meant the Pixalytics name was circulating around the Las Marina track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sponsoring an F1 car isn’t something a micro-businesses, like us, normally does; but as we described in last week’s blog this came through a crowdfunding opportunity.

We spent the weekend watching the television coverage to see if we could spot our name on the car; but the speed made it almost impossible. We knew where our name was, as you can see in the pictures, and a number of times we saw the white line of the text, but couldn’t make out individual the letters. We almost saw it in pit lane interviews, but the presenter’s leg was in the way! Whilst in the race the closest we came was a shot from Fernando Alonso’s car as he and Will Stevens, in the Caterham, raced down the straight; but everything was still a blur. So despite all this, was the sponsorship worth it? Absolutely!

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Using social media before, during and after the race we were able to get the message out about our sponsorship, this meant:

  • Much higher high profile on Twitter and LinkedIn, with a more impressions, views, retweets, favourites and clicks.
  • Increase web traffic for the days leading up to the race.
  • Comments and direct responses to last week’s blog were higher than normal.
  • Connections with new people and companies through the Caterham crowdfunding community.

This piece of promotion made a hugely positive impact on our profile, plus it was great fun too!

For a micro-business marketing can be a dreaded word. It’s the one thing that everyone knows they should do, but it’s often the thing that gets put off until tomorrow; contracts need to be delivered, invoices payments have to be chased and HMRC has to be paid. These are all far more pressing than marketing, right?

Wrong. Marketing is vital to developing a sustainable business. You need to make sure people know about your company, its products and services. Too often micro-businesses stick with the tried and tested; adverts, flyers, exhibiting and websites. All of these are important, but don’t forget to think big too!

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Sure the large firms have more money, more time and more people, so you can be creative. Look for the unusual and the expected, and when you see an opportunity seize it. We found out about Caterham watching the television at home, and within an hour had taken the chance. Consider this quote from Richard Branson, a master of self-promotion.

“Don’t think what’s the cheapest way to do it or the fastest way to do it. Think what’s the most amazing way to do it!”

The next time you think about your marketing, don’t just do what you’ve always done. Think unusual, think unexpected, think different, think amazing, think big! You never know what opportunities you could seize!

Pixalytics Going 200 Miles An Hour

Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi from the 10th November 2014. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi from the 10th November 2014.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

One of the keys to growing a small business is to say yes a lot. It might be yes to a new contract, or yes to being part of a bidding consortium or yes to an unusual marketing opportunity. We’ve recently said yes to such a marketing opportunity, and this weekend our company name will adorn two Formula 1 cars as they compete in the final F1 Grand Prix of the season in Abu Dhabi. Pixalytics has sponsored an F1 racing team!

We’re part of the community that’s helped the Caterham F1 team to race in Abu Dhabi. Caterham F1 is based in Oxfordshire in the UK, and sadly went into administration in October 2014 resulting in them missing the races in Brazil and the USA. In November they started a crowd-funding initiative, using the Exeter based Crowdcube platform, to raise over £2M to enable them to race in Abu Dhabi.

A number of rewards were offered to those who supported the #RefuelCaterhamF1 project, and one of them caught our eye; we felt the opportunity to have our name on the car was an opportunity not to miss. As regular blog readers will know we are fans of Formula One and at the final Grand Prix of the season this weekend, our company name will appear on the tradebar on both sides of the two participating Caterham CT05 F1 cars. Hopefully during Thursday and Friday practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday’s race, Pixalytics will be hitting speeds of almost 200mph and with a bit of luck, may be visible to an audience of billions.

An Earth observation company sponsoring an F1 team may not at first appear to be a natural fit, but Caterham is a British company working in the STEM sector, like us. We need highly skilled organisations like Caterham to thrive in this country, vibrant STEM companies are vital to encouraging the next generation to see the opportunities in these areas. There is a long way to go before Caterham even survives, especially with the recently announced redundancies, but we wanted to give them our support.

Early this year we wrote a blog about how we hadn’t been able to see the night-time Grand Prix in Singapore without using high resolution satellites. As soon as we knew we were going racing, the question raised its head again – could we see the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit from space? It takes place on the Yas Marina circuit, the circuit is five and half kilometres long, but it is a L-shaped loop with a footprint of about three kilometres.

After searching the Landsat 8 images archive, we found the image at the shown top of the blog from the 10th November 2014 where you can clearly see the circuit. What do you mean you can’t see it? It’s in the bottom left quadrant, about a third of the way in from the left and a third of the way up from the bottom. It is there!

Zoomed in Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit from the 10th November 2014. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Zoomed in Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit from the 10th November 2014.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

If  you are still to see it, it’s worth knowing the Yas Marina circuit has a second interesting feature. The circuit loops around the Ferrari World theme park and this building has a bright Ferrari red roof, making it easier to spot. You can see it  clearer in the zoomed in image on t right. but it is also in the image at the top.

Running your own business, or any business, is hard work. A lot of time is spent winning customers, completing contracts and worrying about cashflow and profit. Sometimes you have put the business aside, and take a moment to enjoy what you do. We’re doing that this weekend. Will we get new business out of our sponsorship? Unlikely. Will anyone see Pixalytics on the car? Probably not – unless the TV cameras zoom in! But for us, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to sponsor an F1 car. So watch the coverage over the weekend, and let us know if you see Pixalytics flying past.

Our Beaches Are Shrinking!

Do you remember the fun of building sandcastles at the beach? It’s something almost every child loves to do, but perhaps not for too much longer. According to an article published in The New York Times last week, seventy-five to ninety percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are shrinking. According to Professor Gillis of Rutgers University, this is due to a combination of increased storm activity, rising sea levels and human development of the shoreline.

Landsat 8 Image of Chesapeake Bay from the 28th February 2014. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Landsat 8 Image of Chesapeake Bay from the 28th February 2014.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The impact of storms was demonstrated last winter when millions of tonnes of sand were stripped from our shores. The beach at Formby in Liverpool lost thirteen metres of coastline, whilst in Cornwall Perranporth lost about a million tonnes of sand, Fistral Beach in Newquay lost thousands of tonnes of sand and the beach at Bude almost disappeared completely.

A snapshot of sediment movement can be seen in the Landsat 8 image above of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, USA. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel can be clearly seen stretching to the north, with a number of boats passing through it. The image is displayed as a pseudo-true colour composite, combining the red, green and blue wavelengths with some enhancements to bring out specific features. The suspended sediment around the coast can be seen in the complex colour patterns of turbulence and movement, and during storms this sediment will include the larger, and heavier, sand particles.

However, anyone who visited the seaside this summer might not have noticed the major loss of sand from last year’s storms. This is because beach replenishment is a major activity in many areas, either because the beach forms part of the protective barriers for the land or because the beach is tourist attraction. Sand is not an infinite resource, and most replenishment comes from other beaches, dredging or mining. For example, this year areas around Bridport and Lyme Regis in Dorset were reshaped with sand recovered from harbour dredging.

Beach replenishment is not the only usage of sand. Sand is the most consumed natural resource on earth, and the biggest user is the construction industry in the production of concrete. However, it is also used in any process that requires silicon dioxide which includes everything from wine to toothpaste, glass and computer microprocessor chips. In fact, according to The New York Times, the US sand and gravel business is fastest growing sector in their economy.

Sand is becoming scarce in the world. We need to start taking care of our sand, and think carefully about how we use it. Should we replenish every beach that loses its sand? If we don’t do start to take shrinking sand seriously, future generations of children may never experience the joy of building sandcastles on a beach.

Smashing the Earth Observation Data Silos

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

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

Earth observation (EO) is an all-encompassing term for monitoring our world, however as soon as you start examining the topography of the field in detail you’ll find all sorts of mountains, valleys and oceans. An illustration of the different stands can be seen if you consider the subject areas such as hydrography, geology, surveying and remote sensing, or think about areas of interest like the land and the marine specialists, and finally think about sensors specialists for LIDAR, optical or hyperspectral imaging.

Historically a lot of these groupings have tended to work in relative isolation with a limited amount of interaction between them, which has created a lot of EO data, and knowledge, silos. However as satellite technology has developed, the quantity of EO data available has increased exponentially; for example, Landsat is currently collecting fourteen times as many images each day than it was in the 1980’s. Whilst many datasets have been collected, few have been brought together. This is due to both computing power required to manage large datasets and the difficulties of cross-calibrating sensors with different errors and uncertainties.

Cloud computing has broken through most of the data processing obstacles, giving the potential for many more people to get involved in data manipulation, modelling and visualisation. The next challenge is to smash open these data silos, and provide access to historical archives, and new collections, to both the scientific community, and anyone else who is interested. Joining together the different strands of data and knowledge will promote innovation and help us significantly develop our understanding of the planet.

Individual space agencies are working on this through making new data freely available and by analysing their own historical archives and then reprocessing them to improve consistency. Some examples include:

Progress is being made, but there are still limitations as often this only represents the bringing together of data from a single mission; a product set or thematic group. There is a need to be bolder and to amalgamate much wider datasets. Last week, Taiwan demonstrated how this could be achieved by presenting their petascale database for assessing climatic conditions, which has brought together data from the atmosphere, hydrology, ocean currents, tectonics and space. The Earth Science Observation Knowledge base holds ten and half million records and gives scientists near real time access to data.

EO has a vast array of valuable data and is collecting more every day. We’re starting to smash the data silos, but we need to do more to achieve the next step change in understanding how our world works.

A Few Days In Portland: Phytoplankton, Sea Ice and Cake!

Early morning photograph of Portland, Maine

Early morning photograph of Portland, Maine

As I talked about in my last blog, this week I’m attending the Ocean Optics XXII Conference in Portland, Maine in the USA. I arrived last Thursday and spent the weekend at a two day pre-conference meeting entitled ‘Phytoplankton Composition From Space’; where we discussed techniques for mapping phytoplankton – the microscopic plants in the ocean.

The smallest phytoplankton taxa (group) are the single celled cyanobacteria known as blue-green algae, they are an ancient life form with a fossil remains of over 3.5 billion years old. They can be mapped from space using ocean colour satellites which measure a signal based on the scattering and absorption of light within the ocean. This enables Earth observation to map the total biomass, via the concentration of the main pigment that’s normally Chlorophyll, and also get a glimpse into which taxa are present.

Understanding the concentration, and diversity, of phytoplankton is valuable as they play a key role in climate processes by absorbing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. In addition, they are the very essence of the bottom of the food chain, as they are eaten by zooplankton, who in turn are eaten by small fish and so on. Therefore, significant changes in the concentration or diversity of phytoplankton may have ripple effects through the aquatic food chain. The film Ocean Drifters provides an overview of the role of plankton in the ocean.

The conference itself began on Monday and we’ve had a number of interesting and varied presentations, but I’ve particularly enjoyed two plenary sessions. The first was by Don Perovich, of the Thayer School of Engineering looking at the impact of sunlight on sea ice in the artic. The brightness of sea ice determines the amount of light reflected back to space. If the ice is older, and hence snow covered, then it’s bright white whilst ice that’s melting is much darker due to the pools of water and so absorbs more sunlight. Therefore, there is a positive link between melting ice causing ice to melt quicker. In the Artic, sea ice reaches a minimum in September and causes an increase in melting. There is a scientific analysis on Arctic sea ice conditions here.

The second plenary was given by Johnathan Hair from NASA Langley Research Centre, presenting a paper co-authored with his colleague Yongziang Hu and Michael Behrenfeld from Oregon State University. It focussed on using lasers for mapping vertical profiles throughout the water column from space and applications for inland waters, and how this might be used in global ocean plankton research. Regular readers of the blog will know this is topic is something that particularly interests me, and I have previously written about the subject.

Tuesday morning was eventful, as the conference venue was evacuated just as the first session was starting, due to a strong smell of gas. I took the unexpected networking opportunity, and to catch up with one of my former colleagues over a coffee. Thankfully, we were let back into the venue a couple of hours later, and everything went ahead with a bit of rescheduling. My plenary session on Crowdfunding Ocean Optics went ahead in the afternoon, and seemed to generate a good level of interest. I had lot of questions within the session, and a number of people sought me out during the rest of the day to discuss the idea and the project.

I’ve really enjoyed my time in Portland, and have found a fantastic coffee shop and bakery – Bam Bam Bakery on Commercial Street – which I highly recommend! I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.

Citizen Science, Secchi Disks & Ocean Optics

Tomorrow I’m off to the Ocean Optics conference, which has taken place every two years since 1965 and brings together specialists united by light in the ocean; this year the conference has topics as varied as environmental management, fluorescence, remote sensing, phytoplankton, sediments and underwater imaging.

Secchi disk measurements, as of mid October 2014

Secchi disk measurements, as of mid October 2014

I first came to Ocean Optics in 2006, when it was held in Montreal, Canada. I enjoyed it so much I’ve attend every one since, which have been in Castelvecchio (Italy), Anchorage (USA) and Glasgow (Scotland), and this time we are in Portland, in Maine USA. One of the things I really like it is, unlike large conferences, there are no parallel sessions, and so I don’t have to make any difficult decisions on which speakers I can, and those I can’t, see. Conferences can reinforce the silo approach, with the Ocean Colour group meeting in one room and the land remote sensors meeting in another. I think the Ocean Optics format promotes a more collaborative atmosphere, where you see a more diverse range of presentations and people. The collaborative approach to research and innovation is at the centre of my philosophy of working, and so Pixalytics is also one of the conference sponsors.

Next Tuesday, I’m giving a keynote presentation on Crowdsourcing Ocean Optics. My presentation will bring together the topics of Citizen Science, collaborative research that includes members of the public in any one of a variety of way, and Earth observation (EO) data acquired via ocean colour satellites; one example of this is the Secchi Disk project.

A Secchi disk, originally created in 1865 by Father Pietro Angelo Secchi – who was the
Pope’s astronomer, is a flat white disk 30cm in diameter, attached to a tape measure or a rope and also weighted from below. The Secchi Disk is lowered vertically into the water from the side of a boat, and the point at which the disk just disappears from sight is recorded. This depth measures the turbidity of the water, which is influenced by the amount of phytoplankton in the water column.

The Secchi Disk project developed smartphone Apps to allow participants to use a homemade Secchi disk and their smartphone / tablet to record and upload depth data alongside positional information. Through everyone uploading their measurements we are building up a global map of Secchi depths.

The project is a collaboration between Dr Richard Kirby who leads the project and publicity, with Dr Nicholas Outram and Dr Nigel Barlow (Plymouth University) as the App developers, and myself for the online database and EO linkages. The Apps were released at the end of February 2013, and since then 481 Secchi disk measurements have been collected globally; see the figure at the top that shows the global distribution of the uploaded data with the coloured Secchi disks indicating the values recorded.

The Secchi Disk project data is being compared to ocean colour satellite measurements as a cross-validation exercise and, in the longer term, to contribute to our understanding of phytoplankton dynamics. Why don’t you become part of the growing citizen science movement, go on take a measurement and upload it!

The UK Space industry is healthy, but is it understood?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Last week the UK Space Agency released the Executive Summary of its biennial report into the Size and Health of the UK Space Industry. It gives a positive overall picture with the industry having a turnover of £11.3bn in 2012/13; it’s growing at an average annual rate of 7.3%, exports are expanding and we are on track to achieve the aim of having a £40bn UK space industry by 2030. Despite all the positive news, the report raised questions on how well understood the industry is.

The industry is generally split into two sectors, upstream and downstream. Where upstream refers to the part of the industry that build and launch satellites and sensors into space; whilst downstream encompasses the products and services that use the data those objects collect. However, according to the report there is a growing belief that this definition is no longer fit for purpose as it doesn’t reflect the whole industry. Instead the report has split the industry into three sectors: upstream (infrastructure and technology), downstream (direct space services) and the new sector, the wider space economy – which covers space-enabled value added applications.

Evolving definitions is something that happens as industries, technologies and knowledge matures, but we would questions whether providing this split within the downstream activity is helpful. Pixalytics is an Earth observation company; we develop products and services from space data, offer consultancy support and undertake image processing. According to the new definitions our products and services are considered downstream activities, whereas our consultancy and image processing are part of the wider space economy. It’s rarely, if ever, true, that using space data alone can be used to answer customer’s questions. Instead it’s about integrating that data with other information and knowledge, to create a product that adds value for the customer. Hence, a huge part of our work will always span the downstream and wider space economy sectors. So do these new changes create more definition or confusion?

The report is based, amongst other things, on an industrial survey. Invitations to participate in the survey were sent to 228 companies who were judged to be part of the wider space economy. Only 12 replied, that’s a response rate of just 5.26%! We need to understand why there is such a poor response rate, is it apathy, a lack of understanding that they use space services or do they not consider themselves defined by their data sources? If a company uses satellite data, overflights, in-situ measurements and scientific modelling to deliver their services, are they part of the wider space economy? We use desks and bookshelves in our office, but it doesn’t make us a furniture business.

Like many things, communication is the key. If we are evolving our definition of the industry we can’t do it alone. We need to engage with the companies within the industry, and crucially with those we are trying to bring in. Inclusive discussion, education and understanding at all levels are vital, if we want to develop a vibrant and participative wider space economy.