Perspectives from the 12th Appleton Space Conference

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Deimos UK.

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Deimos UK.

Last week I attended the 12th Appleton Space Conference, it was the first time I’d been to one of these conferences, and I was excited to be giving a talk. It was hosted by RAL Space at the Harwell Campus.

After the welcome, the day started with a talk from Ross James (Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency). He’s new to the space community, and so has enjoyed learning to understand it more fully. It was interesting to hear him reinforce the conclusion that the space industry’s value-added multiplier is two, but also that the industry needs to be more regionally and user focused.

Talks then followed by members of European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT, the UK’s ESA centre) and the Harwell Campus. I was surprised hear the comparison that the Harwell Campus site is roughly equivalent to the size of the City of London. Whilst Harwell doesn’t yet have any of the iconic tall buildings of the City, it does mean it has plenty of space to grow – with plans to increase the campus to 5 500 jobs by 2020; although it was acknowledged that an upgrade of the underpinning infrastructure would be needed to support this.

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Sara Huntingdon, Space for Smarter Government Programme.

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Sara Huntingdon, Space for Smarter Government Programme.

After the break we swapped to the topics of growth and innovation. The Autumn Statement had a strong focus on creating an environment for backing winners, with Innovation UK targeted on turning scientific excellence into economic input and scaling up high potential businesses. Two quotes from Tim Just (Innovate UK) that particularly resonated with me:

  • Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; and
  • Innovation transforms it back again.

There was also a debate on whether the space industry is reaching the threshold for a tipping point as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria – i.e., where a slow moving trend reaches critical mass and causes a larger change such as the use of space applications and technologies becoming the everyday norm. The last two talks before lunch were on the development of new instruments – including the recently launched Sentinel-3 mission.

The first afternoon session was on understanding scientific advances. We started off by discussing exoplanets (a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system), followed by detecting signals using ground based radars and then understanding gravitational waves. My own talk on harnessing the increasing volumes of Earth Observation (EO) data came at the end of this session. I focused on discussing how there has been a massive change in the amount of available EO data with the need to bring the abilities of computers and humans together to best use this wealth of information.

The slides from my presentation can be found here. It was interesting to see some of the messages people took away from my talk on Twitter such as:

  • The availability of free satellite data is revolutionising remote sensing
  • We have to make the most out of the large quantity of data made available by Earth Observation

After lots of people coming to talk to me during coffee it was great to see Paul Jerram from e2V showing what EO sensors look like, ranging from much larger version of the snapshot imagers found in smart phones to time delay imagers that collect the signal over a period of time so we can have very high resolution imagery. For example, the planet Mars is being imaged at 30 cm resolution. Prof Martin Wooster (Kings College London) focused on biomass burning emissions. Research has shown that the Malaysian fires in 2015, linked to El Nino, contributed to 15% of the global carbon dioxide increases that year but also to thousands of deaths due to the air pollution they caused.

Our day of talks concluded with a keynote lecture by Tim Peake, giving a personal insight into his mission into Space onboard the International Space Station (ISS). As an afternoon speaker I had a front row seat, and so I’m easily spotted on Tim’s room selfie! It was interesting to hear that Tim found adjusting to gravity back on Earth more difficult than weightlessness in space. How much he enjoyed his time on the ISS was obvious when he said he’d be happy to go again as the journey into space was particularly exhilarating.

Whilst aboard the ISS Tim used his limited amount of spare time on Sundays to take photographs of the Earth. Anyone who followed Tim on Twitter will have seen some of these, but he has also now brought out a book of these pictures titled ‘Hello, is this planet Earth? My View from the International Space Station’. An interesting footnote, although not from the conference, is that the UK has just purchased the capsule Tim used to get to, and from, space and it will go on display in the Science Museum next year.

Overall, it was a fantastic day jam packed with interesting, exciting and inspiring discussions about space!

UK Government View On ESA and Space Industry

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

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

This week we got a glimpse of the UK Government’s view on the space industry, with the publication of Satellites and Space: Government Response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee’s Third Report of Session 2016/17. The original report was published in June and contained a series of recommendations, to which the Government responded.

The timing is interesting for two reasons:

  • Firstly, it comes just before the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place on Thursday and Friday this week in Lucerne. We highlighted the importance of this meeting in a recent blog.
  • Secondly, it has taken the Government five months to respond, something the Committee themselves were disappointed with.

The Government’s response has a number of insights into the future for the UK space industry. The full report can be seen here, but we wanted to pick out three things that caught our eye:

ESA
For us, and the ESA Ministerial, the most interesting comment was that the Government reaffirmed that the UK will remain a member of ESA after Brexit. It also noted that “The UK’s investment in the European Space Agency is an important part of our overall investment in space, from which we obtain excellent value.” Whilst the level of financial commitment to ESA won’t become clear until the Ministerial, the mood music seems positive.

Earth Observation
The role of the Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) was highlighted, particularly in relation to helping the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs use satellite data more. As part of SSGP we ran a successful Flood Mapping project during 2015/16. SSGP is running again this year, but given the importance placed on the programme on embedding space activities within Government it was disappointing not to see a further commitment beyond March 2017.

A business plan for a Government Earth Observation Service is currently being written, which is aimed at increasing the uptake of EO data within Government. We’ve not seen too much about this service yet, and will be very interested in the business plan.

Responding a question on harnessing the public interest in Tim Peake’s time in space, it was nice to see the work of the EO Detective highlighted. This is a fantastic project that raises awareness of the space industry in schools, and uses space/satellite imagery to help children explore topics such as climate change.

Small Satellites
“The Government intends to establish the UK as the European hub for low cost launch of small satellites.” It’s an interesting ambition; although it’s not completely clear what they mean by the term small satellites. As we described last week definitions are important.

On top of the three points above there were some words on funding for space related research; however these amounted to no more than an acknowledgement that various Government bodies will work together. There was also reference to the development of a new Space Growth Strategy, something we’ll talk more about in two weeks.

The Government’s response to this report was an interesting read, and whilst there are still a lot of unanswered questions it does hint at cautious optimism that they will support the space industry.

We were all on tenterhooks this week waiting the big announcements from the ESA Ministerial, and here are some of the headline outcomes:

  • Overall, ESA’s 22 member states plus Slovenia and Canada allocated €10.3 billion for space activities and programmes over the next five years. This includes an EO programme valued at €1.37 bn up until 2025.

Within this overall envelope, the UK has allocated €1.4 bn funding over five years, which equates to 13.5% of total. This includes:

  • €670.5 m for satellite technology including telecommunications, navigation and EO.
  • €376.4 m for science and space research
  • €82,4 m for the ExoMars programme.
  • €71 m for the International Space Station Programme
  • €22 m for innovate space weather missions

Our eye was, of course, drawn to the investment in EO and there is a little more detail, with the €670.5 m is:€60 m for the development of the commercial use of space data €228.8 m for environmental science applications and climate services through ESA’s EO programme, including:

  • Incubed – a new programme to help industry develop the Earth observation satellite technology for commercial markets
  • the Biomass mission to measure the carbon stored in the world’s forests
  • the Aeolus mission, measuring wind speed in three dimensions from space

Finally, it is worth noting Katherine Courtney, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, who commented, “This significant investment shows how the UK continues to build on the capability of the UK space sector and demonstrates our continuing strong commitment to our membership in the European Space Agency.”

Small Satellites Step Forward

Artist's concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Image courtesy of NASA.

Artist’s concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Image courtesy of NASA.

We’re all about small satellites with this blog, after looking at the big beast that is GOES-R last week. Small satellites, microsatellites, cubesats or one of the other myriad of names they’re described as, have been in the news this month.

Before looking at what’s happening, we’re going to start with some definitions. Despite multiple terms being used interchangeably, they are different and are defined based around either their cubic size or their wet mass – ‘wet mass’ refers to the weight of the satellite including fuel, whereas dry mass is just the weight of satellite:

  • Small satellites (smallsats), also known as minisats, have a wet mass of between 100 and 500 kg.
  • Microsats generally have a wet mass of between 10 and 100 kg.
  • Nanosats have a wet mass of between 1 and 10 kg.
  • Cubesats are a class of nanosats that have a standard size. One Cubesat measures 10x10x10 cm, known as 1U, and has a wet mass of no more than 1.33 kg. However, it is possible to join multiple cubes together to form a larger single unit.
  • Picosats have a wet mass of between 0.1 and 1 kg
  • Femtosats have a wet mass of between 10 and 100 g

To give a comparison, GOES-R had a wet mass of 5 192 kg, a dry mass of 2 857 kg, and a size of 6.1 m x 5.6 m x 3.9 m.

Small satellites have made headlines for a number of reasons, and the first two came out of a NASA press briefing given by Michael Freilich, Director of NASA’s Earth science division on the 7th November. NASA is due to launch the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) on 12th December from Cape Canaveral. CYGNSS will be NASA’s first Earth Observation (EO) small satellite constellation. The mission will measure wind speeds over the oceans, which will be used to improve understanding, and forecasting, of hurricanes and storm surges.

The constellation will consist of eight small satellites in low Earth orbits, which will be focussed over the tropics rather than the whole planet. Successive satellites in the constellation will pass over the same area every twelve minutes, enabling an image of wind speed over the entire tropics every few hours.

Each satellite will carry a Delay Doppler Mapping Instrument (DDMI) which will receive signals from existing GPS satellites and the reflection of that same signal from the Earth. The scattered signal from the Earth will measure ocean roughness, from which wind speed can be derived. Each microsatellite will weigh around 29 kg and measure approximately 51 x 64 x 28 cm; on top of this will be solar panels with a span of 1.67 m.

The second interesting announcement as reported by Space News, was that NASA is planning to purchase EO data from other small satellite constellation providers, to assess the quality and usability of that data. They will be one-off purchases with no ongoing commitment, and will sit alongside data from existing NASA missions. However, it is difficult not to assume that a successful and cost effective trial could lead to ongoing purchases, which could replace future NASA missions.

It’s forecast that this initiative could be worth in the region of $25 million, and will surely interest the existing suppliers such as Planet or TerraBella; however, in the longer term it could also attract new players to the market.

Finally in non NASA small satellite news, there was joint announcement at the start of the month by the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that they’d agreed to create a joint satellite constellation for EO. No further detail is available at this stage.

Once again, this shows what a vibrant, changing and evolving industry we work in!

GOES-R Goes Up!

Artist impression of the GOES-R satellite. Image courtesy of NASA.

Artist impression of the GOES-R satellite. Image courtesy of NASA.

On Saturday, 19th November, at 10.42pm GMT the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) is due to be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA.

The GOES-R is a geostationary weather satellite operated by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Department of the US Government. It will the latest in the NOAA’s GOES series of satellites, and will take the moniker GOES-16 once it is in orbit, joining the operational GOES satellite constellation comprising of GOES-13, GOES-14 & GOES-15.

It will be put into a geostationary orbit at around 35 800 km above the Earth which will allow it to match the Earth’s rotation, meaning that it will effectively stay over a specific point on the Earth. It will be located approximately at 137 degrees West longitude, and through the constellation will provide coverage for North, Central and South America together with the majority of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Artists impression GOES-R satellite and its instruments. Image courtesy of NASA.

Artists impression GOES-R satellite and its instruments. Image courtesy of NASA.

The instrument suite aboard the satellite has three types: Earth facing instruments, sun facing instruments and space environment instruments.

Earth Facing Instruments: these are the ones we’re most excited about!

  • Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) is the main instrument and is a passive imaging radiometer with 16 different spectral bands: two visible bands – Blue and Red with a spatial resolution of 0.5km, four near-infrared with spatial resolutions of 1 km; and ten infrared bands with a spatial resolution of 2 km. As its in a geostationary orbit its temporal resolution is extremely high with the full mode being where the Western Hemisphere is imaged every 5 – 15 minutes, whereas in its Mesocale mode (providing a 1000 km x 1000 km swath) the temporal resolution is only 30 seconds.
  • Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) is, as the name suggests, an instrument that will measure total lightning, and both in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning across the Americas. It is an optical imager with a single spectral band of 777.4 nm which can detect the momentary changes in the optical scene caused by lightning. The instrument has a spatial resolution of approximately 10 km.

Sun Facing Instruments

  • Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) instrument has two sensors to monitor solar irradiance in the upper atmosphere; these are the Extreme Ultraviolet Sensor (EUVS) and the X-Ray Sensor (XRS).
  • Solar Ultraviolet Imager is a telescope monitoring the sun in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength range.

Space Environment Monitoring Instruments

  • Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS) consists of four sensors:
    • Energetic Heavy Ion Sensor (EHIS) to measure the proton, electron, and alpha particle fluxes at geostationary orbit.
    • Magnetospheric Particle Sensor (MPS) is a magnetometer measuring the magnitude and direction of the Earth’s ambient magnetic field; and has two sensors the MPS-LO and MPS-HI.
    • Solar and Galactic Proton Sensor (SGPS) will, as the name indicates, measure the solar and galactic protons found in the Earth’s magnetosphere.
  • Magnetometer will measure of the space environment magnetic field that controls charged particle dynamics in the outer region of the magnetosphere.

The ABI instrument is the most interesting to us in terms of Earth observation, and it will produce a remarkable 25 individual products including Aerosol Detection, Cloud and Moisture Imagery, Cloud Optical Depth, Cloud Particle Size Distribution, Cloud Top Measurements, Derived Motion Winds & Stability Indices, Downward Shortwave Radiation at the Surface, Fire/Hot Spotting, Hurricane Intensity Estimation, Land Surface Temperature, Moisture & Vertical Temperature Profiles, Rainfall Rate, Reflected Shortwave Radiation at the Top Of Atmosphere, Sea Surface Temperature, Snow Cover, Total Precipitable Water and Volcanic Ash. If you want to look at the details of specific products then there are Algorithm Theoretical Basis Documents (ABTDs) available, which are like a detailed scientific paper, and can be found here.

The GOES-R is the first in a series of four satellites to provide NOAA with improved detection and observation of environmental events. It is not a cheap series of satellite, with the cost of developing, launching and operating this series estimated to be around $11 billion. However, this will provide observations up to 2036.

We’re excited by this launch, and are looking forward to being able to utilise some of this new generation weather information.

High Noon for ESA Funding

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

The future direction of the space industry in Europe is set to be debated at the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place at the start of December. It will look at the Space Strategy for Europe which we reviewed last week, and crucially will set ESA’s budget for the few next years.

The Council is the governing body of ESA and each of the 22 member states is represented, plus Canada. The Council is chaired by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner, and he gave a press briefing in Paris earlier this week in advance of the meeting.

Sadly, I was unable to go to France for the meeting; but luckily Peter B de Selding from Space News was there and produced an excellent article which highlighted the key points including:

  • ESA is seeking an €11 billion settlement
  • Concern over the Norway’s proposed 75% contribution reduction
  • The ExoMars Programme, which hit the headlines earlier this year when the Schiaparelli lander crashed on its descend to the Mars surface, has a funding gap of €400 million.
  • €800 million is being sought to continue the collaboration with NASA on the International Space Station until 2024

The headline message on money is clearly the requested €11 billion settlement. In 2016 the ESA budget was €5.25 billion, of which almost 30% was income from the European Union (EU), Eumetsat and other programmes. The remaining 70% came from the contributions of each member state and Canada, and it is these future contributions that will be discussed at the Ministerial. This year the biggest contributor was Germany (€872.6 m), followed by France (€844.5 m) and Italy (€512 m) – between them these three accounted for almost 60% of the ESA member state budget.

For us, Pixalytics and the UK, there were a couple of interesting points. Firstly, ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Programmes (EOEP-5) has had a 12.5% funding cut reducing their budget down to €1.4 bn for the period 2017 – 2025. It’s not currently clear what impact this reduction will, or will not, have on existing and planned activities.

Secondly, and for the second week running the blog has had to mention the B word. We’ve previously written about the fact that ESA and the EU are different organisations, and that Brexit does not directly impact our involvement with ESA – a point reinforced by the Director General at the briefing.

Indirectly though, Brexit impacts, if not dominates, the political and financial landscape of the country and as such will have affected the discussions surrounding our ESA contribution commitment. For example:

  • Dropping Value Of Sterling: The pound has dropped by over 13% since the EU Referendum, significantly increasing the cost to the UK of our ESA contribution which was €13.2 m in 2016.
  • Budget Pressures: In addition to the drop in the pound, the UK Space Agency has to compete with every other Government Department for funding. Given the current austerity financial approach, coupled with the additional costs of dealing with Brexit, money is tight.
  • Space Industry Profile: Every industry is currently fighting to get their agenda’s onto Government Minister’s desk to ensure they get then ‘best deal from Brexit’. Space is no different. We may not have the London centre of the financial sector or the emotional impact of the farmers and fisherman, but we are a strong and important part of the economy.

We need Ministers to understand our industry, and to ensure that they support us as much as possible. This means, as we said last week, that we need to give a positive commitment to our ongoing involvement with ESA and a strong financial contribution at the Ministerial in Lucerne on the 1st and 2nd of December.

We await the outcome with interest!

Space Strategy For Europe

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

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

A Space Strategy for Europe was issued last week by the European Commission (EC), based around four strategic goals.

  • Maximising the Benefits of Space for Society and the European Union (EU) Economy
  • Fostering a Globally Competitive & Innovative European Space Sector
  • Reinforcing Europe’s Autonomy In Accessing & Using Space In a Secure & Safe Environment
  • Strengthening Europe’s Role as a Global Actor & Promoting International Co-operation

The strategy began with a heartening assessment of the European space economy, recognising that it supports almost a quarter of million jobs and is valued at around €50 bn.

The Earth observation (EO) sector is strongly represented within the document, particularly in the first two goals. Whilst some of the references to EO are fairly obvious statements, there are also some intriguing comments.

Maximising the Benefits of Space for Society and the EU Economy
This goal identifies a significant untapped potential for the uptake of space services and data, and outlines a number of actions that will be taken to unlock this; including:

  • Encouraging the use of space services and data, wherever they provide effective solutions – the last part provides an interesting test.
  • Ensuring EU legislation will be supportive of the uptake of these services.
  • Provision of improved access to, and exploitation of, Copernicus data – anyone who has tried to access data will know the need for continued improvement.Improving interconnectivity with other data infrastructures and other datasets.
  • Define clear limits between free Copernicus core information services and commercial applications – hopefully this will show Copernicus services as an opportunity rather than a threat; something that is currently unclear for, particularly SME, businesses.

Overall, the strategy states this will open up new business opportunities, including for SME’s and start-ups. We’re supportive of these actions, however we also have concerns.

The document has a single line stating it will reach out to new users and connect downstream activities to non-space sectors. This is the holy grail for every EO commercial organisation, and very few have come close to achieving it. The minimal statement potentially suggests the EC is fundamentally underestimating how difficult this will be.

An intriguing element is the intention “to introduce an ‘industry test’ to check downstream suppliers can provide reliable and affordable services.” We’d support any quality accreditation, but it will be interesting to see whether this is a certification scheme for everyone or a barrier to market for SMEs and start-ups.

This issue was strongly debated at a European Space Agency (ESA) meeting last week, particularly over the question as to whether the accrediting body assumes liability when a service doesn’t deliver. It is worth noting that the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) has an existing certification scheme for management practices, but only a few organisations have gone through the process to date.

Fostering a Globally Competitive & Innovative European Space Sector
This goal focuses on supporting research and development within the space economy, together with promoting entrepreneurship and business opportunities.

It specifically references the launch of a dedicated sector skills alliance for space/Earth observation – which sounds great. However, it appears to be a committee of stakeholders to discuss the necessary skills requirements for the industry, and so it is not clear what it will actually do.

The Commission also aims to support space entrepreneurs, start-ups and SME’s through a variety of programmes, dialogues and synergies! Lots of good words used with little clarity of real action.

Reinforcing Europe’s Autonomy In Accessing & Using Space In a Secure & Safe Environment
This goal has a focus on ensuring that Europe has the infrastructure and capacity to operate in space freely; although this does seem slightly at odds with the international co-operation trumpeted in the final goal.

However, the most interesting element for the EO community is the statement that the radio frequency spectrum must be protected from interference from other systems. This is something that is vital for space sector, but falls short of guaranteeing space technology having access to radio frequencies. In recent times, there has been a threat to the microwave frequencies from the requirements of mobile phone and wifi networks.

Strengthening Europe’s Role as a Global Actor & Promoting International Co-operation
The final strategic goal highlights the importance of international co-operation and the desire for the EU to have a much greater global lead. Given that the EU has the second largest public space budget in the world, this emphasis is welcomed.

It also notes that the EU will contribute to initiatives including the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) and the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS).

Summary
Like all strategies there are lots of good intentions within these words, but limited practical details. It won’t be until the detailed plans are draw up to implement these actions that we will be able to determine whether this document is a valuable step forward for the space economy in Europe, or a thirteen page missed opportunity.

Our Footnote for the UK
The strategy makes clear the EU & ESA will be key to the delivery of this strategy, and so we can’t comment without mentioning the Brexit word. The current plan is that the UK will be out of the EU in early 2019, and therefore the UK Government’s input to the upcoming ESA ministerial is absolutely critical, alongside decisions on how we’ll interact with the Copernicus program.

We need to give a strong and positive commitment to our ongoing involvement with ESA, without this the UK’s space economy will face a significant setback. Everyone within the community must ensure that the Government, and Ministers, are fully aware of the importance of this in the coming weeks.

Ten Top Tips Learnt Working for a Small Remote Sensing Company

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

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

I am approaching the end of my year at Pixalytics, and this blog is summary of what I’ve learnt from working for a small commercial remote sensing company.

The work itself has been a real blessing for me. Remote sensing product development was just the role I had been looking for, so I took it on with relish. During the year I have spent time researching, and supporting the product development of, flood mapping using SAR imagery, vegetation time series and light pollution.

I’ve learnt a huge amount over the past twelve months, and here are my top ten tips on researching & developing remote sensing products:

  1. Keep in mind who your stakeholders are and exactly what they require.
  2. Ensure your ground site is really covered by the satellite image, as coverage tends to be diagonal rather than straightforward latitude and longitude square and can miss a site altogether.
  3. Practise program version control at all times!
  4. Check the images you are using are the best ones for your requirements, i.e., not 16 day composites when daily images are more suitable and available; stopping you wasting a day downloading the wrong images!
  5. Write down problem solving routines, so next time you can do it for yourself!
  6. It’s always important to run pilots and streamline programming. This will save time and effort, and help verify that your end product is statistically robust.
  7. Write down what you find and keep good records of your algorithms and programming, so that you don’t duplicate work.
  8. Write technical notes on your work, so that programs can be easily shared, reviewed and run by others.
  9. Allow sufficient time before deadlines for reviewing and reworking.
  10. Make notes on the data you are using as you go along, including source, dates, locations and any company/organisation credits needed.

These are all lessons I’ll be taking with me when I leave, whether in commerce or academia.

It’s also been an insight into how a business is run, via these activities and hearing (one side!) of Sam’s teleconferences. Plus I’ve been involved in valuable encounters with the Environment Agency on products and have attended conferences, and given a presentation at one, on behalf of Pixalytics.

Plymouth has also been fun to explore. I’ve enjoyed visiting the various arts venues all over the city together with the galleries and museums, festivals and excellent cuisine.

Many thanks to Sam and Andy at Pixalytics for giving me this opportunity. I’m sad to leave and have enjoyed my time here.

Blog written by Dr Louisa Reynolds.

Remote Sensing: Learning, Learned & Rewritten

Image of Yemen acquired by Sentinel-2 in August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Image of Yemen acquired by Sentinel-2 in August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

This blog post is about what I did and what thoughts came to mind on my three-month long ERASMUS+ internship at Pixalytics which began in July and ends this week.

During my first week at Pixalytics, after being introduced to the Plymouth Science Park buildings and the office, my first task was to get a basic understanding of what remote sensing is actually about. With the help of Sam and Andy’s book, Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing, that was pretty straightforward.

As the words suggest, remote sensing is the acquisition of data and information on an object without the need of being on the site. It is then possible to perform a variety of analysis and processing on this data to better understand and study physical, chemical and biological phenomena that affect the environment.

Examples of programming languages: C, Python & IDL

Examples of programming languages: C, Python & IDL

I soon realized that quite a lot of programming was involved in the analysis of satellite data. In my point of view, though, some of the scripts, written in IDL (Interactive Data Language), were not as fast and efficient as they could be, sometimes not at all. With that in mind, I decided to rewrite one of the scripts, turning it into a C program. This allowed me to get a deeper understanding of satellite datasets formats (e.g. HDF, Hierarchical Data Format) and improve my overall knowledge of remote sensing.

While IDL, a historic highly scientific language for remote sensing, provides a quick way of writing code, it has a number of glaring downsides. Poor memory management and complete lack of strictness often lead to scripts that will easily break. Also, it’s quite easy to write not-so-pretty and confusing spaghetti code, i.e., twisted and tangled code.

Writing C code, on the other hand, can get overly complicated and tedious for some tasks that would require just a few lines in IDL. While it gives the programmer almost full control of what’s going on, some times it’s just not worth the time and effort.

Instead, I chose to rewrite the scripts in Python which I found to be quite a good compromise. Indentation can sometimes be a bit annoying, and coming from other languages the syntax might seem unusual, but its great community and the large availability of modules to achieve your goals in just a few lines really make up for it.

It was soon time to switch to a bigger and more complex task, which has been, to this day, what I would call my “main task” during my time at Pixalytics: building an automated online processing website. The website aspect was relatively easy with a combination of the usual HTML, Javascript, PHP and CSS, it was rewriting and integrated the remote sensing scripts that was difficult. Finally all of those little, and sometimes not quite so little, scripts and programs were available from a convenient web interface, bringing much satisfaction and pride for all those hours of heavy thinking and brainstorming. Hopefully, you will read more about this development in the future from Pixalytics, as it will form the back-end of their product suite to be launched in the near future.

During my internship there was also time for events inside the Science Park such as the Hog Roast, and events outside as well when I participated at the South-West England QGIS User Group meeting in Dartmoor National Park. While it is not exactly about remote sensing, but more on the Geographic Information System (GIS) topic it made me realize how much I had learned on remote sensing in my short time at Pixalytics, I was able to exchange my opinions and points of view with other people that were keen on the subject.

A side project I’ve been working on in my final weeks was looking at the world to find stunning, interesting (and possibly both) places on Earth to make postcards from – such as one at the top of the blog. At times, programming and scientific research reads can get challenging and/or frustrating, and it’s so relaxing to just look at and enjoy the beauty of our planet.

It is something that anyone can do as it takes little knowledge about remote sensing. Free satellite imagery is available through a variety of sources; what I found to be quite easy to access and use was imagery from USGS/NASA Landsat-8 and ESA Sentinel-2. It is definitely something I would recommend.

Finally, I want to say “thank you” to Sam and Andy, without whom I would have never had the opportunity to get the most out of this experience, in a field in which I’ve always been interested into, but had never had the chance to actually get my hands on.

Blog written by Davide Mainas on an ERASMUS+ internship with Pixalytics via the Tellus Group.

Differences Between Optical & Radar Satellite Data

Ankgor Wat, Cambodia. Sentinel-2A image courtesy of ESA.

Ankgor Wat, Cambodia. Sentinel-2A image courtesy of ESA.

The two main types of satellite data are optical and radar used in remote sensing. We’re going to take a closer look at each type using the Ankgor Wat site in Cambodia, which was the location of the competition we ran on last week’s blog as part of World Space Week. We had lots of entries, and thanks to everyone who took part!

Constructed in the 12th Century, Ankgor Wat is a temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. It lies 5.5 kilometres north of the modern town of Siem Reap and is popular with the remote sensing community due to its distinctive features. The site is surrounded by a 190m-wide moat, forming a 1.5km by 1.3km border around the temples and forested areas.

Optical Image
The picture at the top, which was used for the competition, is an optical image taken by a Multi-Spectral Imager (MSI) carried aboard ESA’s Sentinel-2A satellite. Optical data includes the visible wavebands and therefore can produce images, like this one, which is similar to how the human eye sees the world.

The green square in the centre of the image is the moat surrounding the temple complex; on the east side is Ta Kou Entrance, and the west side is the sandstone causeway which leads to the Angkor Wat gateway. The temples can be clearly seen in the centre of the moat, together with some of the paths through the forest within the complex.

To the south-east are the outskirts of Siem Reap, and the square moat of Angkor Thom can be seen just above the site. To the right are large forested areas and to the left are a variety of fields.
In addition to the three visible bands at 10 m resolution, Sentinel-2A also has:

  • A near-infrared band at 10 m resolution,
  • Six shortwave-infrared bands at 20 m resolution, and
  • Three atmospheric correction bands at 60 m resolution.

Radar Image
As a comparison we’ve produced this image from the twin Sentinel-1 satellites using the C-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument they carry aboard. This has a spatial resolution of 20 m, and so we’ve not zoomed as much as with the optical data; in addition, radar data is noisy which can be distracting.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. SAR image from Sentinel-1 courtesy of ESA.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. SAR image from Sentinel-1 courtesy of ESA.

The biggest advantage of radar data over optical data is that it is not affected by weather conditions and can see through clouds, and to some degree vegetation. This coloured Sentinel-1 SAR image is produced by showing the two polarisations (VV and VH i.e. vertical polarisation send for the radar signal and vertical or horizontal receive) alongside a ratio of them as red, green and blue.

Angkor Wat is shown just below centre, with its wide moat, and other archaeological structures surrounding it to the west, north and east. The variety of different landscape features around Angkor Wat show up more clearly in this image. The light pink to the south is the Cambodian city of Siem Reap with roads appearing as lines and an airport visible below the West Baray reservoir, which also dates from the Khmer civilization. The flatter ground that includes fields are purple, and the land with significant tree cover is shown as pale green.

Conclusion
The different types of satellite data have different uses, and different drawbacks. Optical imagery is great if you want to see the world as the human eye does, but radar imagery offers better options when the site can be cloudy and where you want an emphasis on the roughness of the surfaces.

It’s World Space Week!!

world-space-week-logoDid you know it’s World Space Week? It occurs between the 4th and 10th October each year, 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 – see previous blog for more details.

This annual international celebration aims to inspire everyone about space, encourage young people to get involved in science, technology, engineering and maths and to demonstrate the benefits, and use, of space technology. The first World Space Week occurred in 2000, and each year has a specific theme.

2016 World Space Week
We’re really excited this year as the theme is ‘Remote Sensing: Enabling our Future’. It’s celebrating Earth Observation (EO), and highlighting the variety of EO missions in space and the applications which use their data.

There are over 1,000 events taking place all over the world to celebrate remote sensing, and they are all listed on the World Space Week website. It seems as though Brazil is holding the most events this year, a whopping 159! Have a look through and see if there is anything you’d like to go to. If not, create your own event –

  • Spend a night looking at the stars.
  • Use Google Earth to look at your local area from space.
  • Get some friends together and watch classic space films.
  • Build your own spacecraft – Both ESA and SSTL have cut out models you can use.

Competition!!

Competition Image courtesy of ESA.

Competition Image courtesy of ESA.

Here at Pixalytics, we couldn’t let the Remote Sensing theme go by without getting involved. So we’ve decided to run our first ever Twitter competition!! The prize is a copy of our book ‘Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing’, which guides complete beginners through the process of finding, downloading, analysing and applying remote sensing data. We’ll post the book, free of charge, anywhere in the world!

The competition has now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered.

The location was Angkor Wat in Cambodia, read more about the site our next blog.