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.

Celebrating World Space Week!

Did you know this is World Space Week? In 1999, the United Nations declared that World Space Week would occur between the 4th and 10th October each year. It chose these two dates because:

  • On 4th October 1957 the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched; and
  • On 10th October 1967 The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies was signed – which was discussed in last week’s blog.

This annual international celebration supports events in countries around the world to educate people about space, encourage everyone to benefit from the space industry and inspire young people to get involved in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Space: Guiding Your Way is the theme for 2014 and focuses on all aspects of satellite navigation, from the GPS in your smartphone, though road navigation, shipping and disaster recovery. According to the World Space Week website there are over 700 events in over 60 countries taking place during this week’s celebration: everywhere from Afghanistan to Venezuela has an event, supported by a number of global events. The events vary from educational presentations, conferences and demonstrations through to water rocket competitions, training like an astronaut or even having coffee with an astronomer. The UK Space Agency has a ‘Tweet the Expert 2014’ event running between 2pm and 3pm each day this week.

Rumple Quarry in Plymbridge Woods

Rumple Quarry in Plymbridge Woods

Here at Pixalytics, we didn’t want World Space Week to go by without getting involved, and so we’ve taken part in the EarthCache Virtual 5K. Although, don’t let the word virtual fool you as there has been running! EarthCache aims to teach people about the world by highlighting interesting geologic or geographic phenomenon or features you can visit, and there are almost eighteen thousand such sites worldwide. To participate in the Virtual 5K run, you have to run at least 5K starting or ending at a registered EarthCache site.

Sam Lavender at the start of her 5K run

Sam Lavender at the start of her 5K run

Our closest EarthCache site is a quarry site in Plymbridge Woods, pictured above. Records indicate it has been worked as far back as 1683, and slate from here was reportedly used in the building of Devonport Dockyard. In addition to the quarry site, there is also a viaduct and ruins of a waterwheel and quarry workers cottages. To the right is the picture of Sam at the start of her 5K run.

Are you going to join in World Space Week? Have a look at the website and see if you can find an activity, or join us in the virtual run. Whatever you decide to do, remember you’re celebrating space and your part in this industry.

Do you know legal framework for working in space?

Ignorance is no defence in law. Business owners must know all the legal requirements for running a business from financial regulations, through human resources issues to waste disposal. If you work in the vehicle industry, you have to know the legal minimum requirements for having vehicles on the road, insurance and maximum driving hours. Every industry has its own legal framework; do you know requirements for the space industry?

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

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

Space Law begins within discussions at the United Nations at their Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA), and it’s associated Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Through these bodies a number of international agreements are approved covering how space and space activities should be operated. There have been five treaties agreed:

  1. The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (known as the Outer Space Treaty).
  2. The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Rescue Agreement).
  3. The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (known as the Liability Convention).
  4. The 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Registration Convention.
  5. The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (known as the Moon Agreement).

Once a treated has been agreed, there is a two stage process to adopt the treaty into law in by individual countries. A country needs to first sign the treaty, then they must create their own national law to enact it – known as ratifying the treaty. Once a country has signed a treaty, it becomes binding on them. According to OOSA, of the 193 members of the United Nations at the 1st January 2014:

  • 128 countries had signed the Outer Space Treaty, although 25 still have to ratify it.
  • 118 countries had signed the Rescue Agreement, 24 still to ratify it.
  • 113 countries had signed Liability Convention, 22 still to ratify it.
  • 64 countries had signed the Registration Convention, although 4 still to ratify it.

Only 19 countries had signed the Moon Agreement, and 4 of those still have to ratify it.
Interestingly the UK has only signed the first four treaties, we have not signed the Moon Agreement. Other nations like the UK who have only signed the first four treaties include China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States of America. There are 13 countries that have signed and implemented all five treaties: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Turkey and Uruguay; in addition France and India have signed the treaty, but not yet ratified it.

In previous blogs we’ve highlighted that in the UK the 1986 Outer Space Act is the piece of legislation which contains enacts these treaties. It contains details about who the act applies to, the licensing requirements for operating in outer space, registration of space objects, actions that can be taken to prevent people operating in outer space and offences that can be committed. The offences can be committed both by individuals, and by corporate bodies. Other countries have their own legislation, it’s important that you read, and are aware of, the law in any country you are operating. Remember, ignorance is no defence.

Can Earth Observation answer your question?

The opportunities and challenges of utilising Earth observation (EO) data played out in microcosm in our house over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon, I was watching highlights of the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix which takes place on the harbour streets of Marina Bay and is the only night race of the season. To ensure the drivers can see, there are over 1,500 light projectors installed around the circuit giving an illumination of around 3,000 lux.

Whilst watching I wondered aloud whether we’d be able to see the track from space with the additional floodlights. My idle wondering caught Sam’s interest far more than the actual race and she decided to see if she could answer the question. The entire circuit is just over five kilometres long, but it’s a loop and so an approximate two kilometre footprint; any imagery would need a spatial resolution less than this. The final difficulty is that the data needed to be this weekend, as the circuit is only floodlit for the racing.

Within a few laps Sam had identified free near real time night data available from United States National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which covered the required area and timeframe. This was from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) using it’s Day/Night band with a 750m spatial resolution – this resolution meant we would not be able to see the outline of the track as it would be represented by only three or four pixels, but it would be interesting to see if we could identify the track feature. By the end of the race Sam had selected and downloaded the data, and so we could answer my question. However, it turned out to be not quite that easy.

VIIRS Singapore night time imagery, data courtesy of NOAA

VIIRS Singapore night time imagery, data courtesy of NOAA

NOAA data uses a slightly different format to the image processing packages we had, and we couldn’t initially see what we’d downloaded. Sam had to write some computer code to modify the packages to read the NOAA data. For anyone thinking this is an odd way to spend a Sunday evening, to Sam this was a puzzle to solve and she was enjoying herself! After some rapid coding we were able to view the image, but unfortunately the Saturday data wasn’t useful. On Monday we tried again, the Sunday race took place on a clear night and we’ve got a good image of the area, which you can see above. On the larger image you can clearly the Indonesian Islands with Jakarta shining brightly, up through the Java Sea where the lights of some ships are visible and then at the top of the image is Singapore; the zoomed in version of Singapore is the inset image.

Despite the floodlights used for the race, Singapore and some of the surrounding Malaysian cities are so bright at night that the additional lights simply contribute to the overall illumination, rather than making the track stand out. Hence the answer to my question is that the 2014 floodlit Singapore F1 street circuit can’t be distinguished from the surrounding area at this spatial resolution. Of course if we purchased high resolution imagery we may be able to see more detail, but we thought that was going a bit far for my idle wondering!

EO can answer questions like these quickly; and whilst we know not many businesses are dependent on whether the Singapore Grand Prix can be seen from space, but change this to what is the light pollution in your area, what is happening in terms of deforestation in the middle of the jungle, what phytoplankton are doing in the middle of the ocean or whatever question you might have, then EO might be able to provide the answer in a short space of time.

However, there are two main difficulties in getting the answer. Firstly, you’ve got to know where to find the data and secondly, what do with it when you get it. Currently this can be challenging without specialist knowledge, making it inaccessible for the general population. In the coming weeks, we’re going to write some blogs looking at the freely EO data available, and the easiest way of viewing it. Hopefully, this may to help you answer your own questions. In the meantime if you have questions you want answered, get in touch, we’d be happy to help.

What the UK has launched into space

Yesterday NASA announced its ambition to launch astronauts into space from American soil by 2017, and here the Government is currently assessing eight potential sites – including one in Cornwall – to be a UK spaceport by 2018. This nationalistic view of launch pads got me wondering about what the UK has previously launched in space and crucially, where from?

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

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

Under the United Nations Convention on the Registration of Space Objects 1976 a country is deemed to have launched something into space if it does so from its own soil, or it organises someone else to launch it on its behalf. This convention also places obligations on each signatory country, and the UK is one, to make information about all such launches readily available. Details are on the UN website, and in June the UK Space Agency released the UK Registry of Outer Space Objects which makes interesting reading.

According to these sources the UK has launched 67 objects, mostly satellites, into space, beginning in April 1962 with the Ariel 1 satellite. At the time, the United Kingdom was the third country to operate a satellite, after the Soviet Union and the USA. Sadly Ariel 1 had a short four month operational lifespan as it was damaged by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test. Of all the UK’s launches 63% are still operational; a further 22% are in orbit, but non-operational; while the remaining 15% have decayed and returned to earth.

Ariel 1 was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and since then another 17 launches have occurred from American soil, although the most popular UK launch site is French Guiana spaceport with 30 launches. We’ve also launched from Kazakhstan, Russia, Australia, India, Kenya and one even from a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean.

We’ve not launched objects every year; our last fallow year was 2004 and 2013 was the most prolific year with eight launches. Perhaps unsurprisingly a third of the satellites have been launched for telecommunications purposes, with another 18% for military communications. The vast majority of the remainder are for scientific, technological or engineering research purposes. Of the current operational satellites, 56% are in geosynchronous orbits, 30% in low earth orbits and the remaining 14% in medium earth orbits.

This doesn’t give quite the full picture of the UK’s space activities. There are an additional forty five satellites where the UK was not the launching country, but has issued an Outer Space Licence (described in our recent blog) which are listed in the Supplementary Registry of Space Objects on the UK Space Agency website.

The UK has a significant, and growing space sector, and who knows in a few years we may see satellites launched from our shores in Cornwall, Wales or Scotland. Exciting times ahead!