Sentinel To Be Launched

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

Sentinel-2B was launched at 01:49 GMT on the 7th March from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. It’s the second of a constellation of optical satellites which are part of the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme.

Its partner Sentinel-2A was launched on the 23rd June 2015, and has been providing some stunning imagery over the last eighteen months like the picture of Plymouth above. We’ve also used the data within our own work. Sentinel-2B carries an identical Multispectral Imager (MSI) instrument to its twin with 13 spectral bands:

  • 4 visible and near infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 10 m
  • 6 short wave infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 20 m
  • 3 atmospheric correction bands with a spatial resolution of 60 m

With a swath width of 290 km the constellation will acquire data in a band of latitude extending from 56° South around Isla Hornos, Cape Horn, South America to 83° North above Greenland, together with observations over specific calibration sites, such as Dome-C in Antarctica. Its focus will be on continental land surfaces, all European islands, islands bigger than 100 square kilometres, land locked seas and coastal waters.

The satellites will orbit 180 degrees apart at an altitude of 786 km, which means that together they will revisit the same point on Earth every five days at the equator, and it may be faster for parts of southern Europe. In comparison, Landsat takes sixteen days to revisit the same point.

With all Copernicus data being made freely available to anyone, the short revisit time offers opportunities small and micro Earth Observation businesses to establish monitoring products and services without the need for significant investment in satellite data paving the way for innovative new solutions to the way in which certain aspects of the environment are managed. Clearly, five day revisits are not ‘real-time’ and the spatial resolution of Sentinel data won’t be suitable for every problem.There is joint work between the US and Europe, to have complementarity with Landsat-8, which has thermal bands, and allows a further opportunity for cloud-free data acquisitions. Also, commercial operators provide higher spatial resolution data.

At Pixalytics we’re supporters of open source in both software and imagery. Our first point of call with any client is to ask whether the solution can be delivered through free to access imagery, as this can make a significant cost saving and allow large archives to be accessed. Of course, for a variety of reasons, it becomes necessary to purchase imagery to ensure the client gets the best solution for their needs. Of course, applications often include a combination of free to access and paid for data.

Next’s week launch offers new opportunities for downstream developers and we’ll be interested to see how we can exploit this new resource to develop our products and services.

Is the UK Space Industry in good health?

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

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

Last week the UK Space Agency issued its latest report on the Size and Health of the UK Space Industry, covering 2013/14 and 2014/15. There are a number of eye-catching headlines, but this broad-brush approach means that there are a lot of unanswered questions within the granularity of the report.

UK Space Industry Income is Worth £13.7 bn in 2014/15
This headline figure breaks down into 88% (£12 bn) for downstream activities. Whilst the 12% (£1.7 bn) for upstream activities is much smaller, it is higher than in previous years. Upstream refers to the part of the industry that build and launch satellites and sensors; whilst downstream encompasses the products and services that use the data those objects collect. Overall, the UK represents 6.5% of global space economy.

Unsurprisingly, given the above breakdown, space applications are the biggest segment of the industry, followed by space operations, space manufacturing and ancillary services.

This follows through into capabilities which are dominated by Broadcasting, Communications and Navigation & Timing which account for 56%, 19.6% and 12.2% of the space industry income respectively. Earth observation is listed with an income of £256 m, equating to 1.87% of the overall industry; although Meteorology is shown separately.

38,522 Jobs in the UK Space Industry in 2014/15
The space industry accounts for 0.12% of the total UK workforce, with 29,947 people working in downstream activities, and 8,575 working in upstream. It’s interesting to note the difference in the employment percentages, 78% and 22% respectively, compared to the income split above.

A fascinating fact in the report is that the average qualification level of space industry employees is higher than any other sector in England and Wales. With 74% of employees possessing a degree, 15% holding a HNC and the remaining 11% having other qualifications.

Space Industry Throughout the UK
All regions of the country have space companies. Of course, London and the South East – partially driven by the Harwell Campus – have the highest concentrations. We were delighted to see that the South West had was the third most populous area with 126 space organisations; although the South West is only fourth for Headquarters and income generated with £176 m worth of space business within the area.

UK Space Industry Customers
The report notes that the largest customer type is individual consumers, accounting for 54% of the income. However, given the domination of Broadcasting in the figures and with the majority of their customers being individual consumers this does skew the result. Equally limited information can be gleaned for the other customer types.

Personally, we’d be interested in seeing the customer type split for each capability. This would be much more useful, as at the moment these are a set of high level figures offering little, or no, insight.

Growth Slowing In the Space Industry?
The report has lots of positive statements about growth. There are at least four different income growth rates of 6.5%, 7.3%, 8.1% and 8.5% on page 10, depending on which time period you compare. Similarly, page 12 on employment lists growth rates of 5.8%, 6.0% and 6.7%.

All of this sounds great, but looking at the growth rates within in the tables for the last 7 years, quite wild swings year on year can be seen. The chart below shows some good growth rates, but the last two years are the lowest growth rates.

UK Space Industry Income & Employment Growth 2009 - 2016. Source: Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2016, UK Space Agency

UK Space Industry Income & Employment Growth 2009 – 2016.
Source: Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2016, UK Space Agency

To be fair the report itself notes a few caveats on the figures, such as new methodologies and the changing value of the pound. So care should be taken with such figures, but does it show signs that growth could be slowing for the industry?

Towards 2030 Ambitions
In February 2010 the UK Government set ambitious targets for the industry of:

  • 8% of the world space economy by 2020, and 10% by 2030.
  • 100,000 jobs created by 2030, taking the industry to 119,100

By the end of 2014/15 progress had been made towards both of these targets, with the industry representing 6.5% of the world space economy and having 38,522 jobs. Employment needs to grow by 7.8% each year to achieve the target, which is concerning given the current growth levels outlined above. If jobs aren’t being created, it’s unlikely the global market share target will be hit.

Shaping The Future
Finally, the UK Space Agency is currently seeking ideas and evidence on how to implement the 2015 National Space Policy. Anyone can submit their thoughts, and we’d encourage everyone to participate in helping shape the future of the UK space industry.

The submission document is straightforward asking for proposed actions, alongside evidence as why they are necessary, for each of the four principles of the National Space Policy

  • Space is of strategic importance to the UK because of the value that space programmes deliver back to public services, national security, science and innovation and the economy.
  • Preserving and promoting the safety and security of the unique space operating environment, free from interference.
  • Supporting the growth of a robust and competitive commercial space sector, underpinned by excellent academic research.
  • Cooperating internationally to create the legal frameworks for the responsible use of space and collaborating with other nations to deliver maximum benefit from UK investment in space.

The UK Space Industry is growing, but we need to ensure that we take advantage of every opportunity and develop, promote and encourage the use of space based applications and technology.

With all the concerns about economic certainty in the coming years, let’s make sure our industry rockets ahead!

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.