Will Earth Observation’s power base shift in 2017?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you read the top Pixalytics blogs of 2016?

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

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

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

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

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

The other most read blogs of the year were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Earth observation satellites in space in 2016

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

Earth Observation (EO) satellites account for just over one quarter of all the operational satellites currently orbiting the Earth. As noted last week there are 1 419 operational satellites, and 374 of these have a main purpose of either EO or Earth Science.

What do Earth observation satellites do?
According to the information within the Union of Concerned Scientists database, the main purpose of the current operational EO satellites are:

  • Optical imaging for 165 satellites
  • Radar imaging for 34 satellites
  • Infrared imaging for 7 satellites
  • Meteorology for 37 satellites
  • Earth Science for 53 satellites
  • Electronic Intelligence for 47 satellites
  • 6 satellites with other purposes; and
  • 25 satellites simply list EO as their purpose

Who Controls Earth observation satellites?
There are 34 countries listed as being the main controllers of EO satellites, although there are also a number of joint and multinational satellites – such as those controlled by the European Space Agency (ESA). The USA is the leading country, singularly controlling one third of all EO satellites – plus they are joint controllers in others. Of course, the data from some of these satellites are widely shared across the world, such as Landsat, MODIS and SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) missions.

The USA is followed by China with about 20%, and Japan and Russia come next with around 5% each. The UK is only listed as controller on 4 satellites all related to the DMC constellation, although we are also involved in the ESA satellites.

Who uses the EO satellites?
Of the 374 operational EO satellites, the main users are:

  • Government users with 164 satellites (44%)
  • Military users with 112 satellites (30%)
  • Commercial users with 80 satellites (21%)
  • Civil users with 18 satellites (5%)

It should be noted that some of these satellites do have multiple users.

Height and Orbits of Earth observation satellites
In terms of operational EO satellite altitudes:

  • 88% are in a Low Earth Orbit, which generally refers to altitudes of between 160 and 2 000 kilometres (99 and 1 200 miles)
  • 10% are in a geostationary circular orbit at around 35 5000 kilometres (22 200 miles)
  • The remaining 2% are described as having an elliptical orbit.

In terms of the types of orbits:

  • 218 are in a sun-synchronous orbit
  • 84 in non-polar inclined orbit
  • 16 in a polar orbit
  • 17 in other orbits including elliptical, equatorial and molniya orbit; and finally
  • 39 do not have an orbit recorded.

What next?

Our first blog of 2016 noted that this was going to be an exciting year for EO, and it is proving to be the case. We’ve already seen the launches of Sentinel-1B, Sentinel-3A, Jason-3, GaoFen3 carrying a SAR instrument and further CubeSat’s as part of Planet’s Flock imaging constellation.

The rest of the year looks equally exciting with planned launches for Sentinel-2B, Japan’s Himawari 9, India’s INsat-3DR, DigitalGlobe’s Worldview 4 and NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R). We can’t wait to see all of this data in action!

Living Planet Is Really Buzzing!

Living planet rotating global in the exhibition area, photo: S Lavender

Living planet rotating global in the exhibition area, photo: S Lavender

This week I’m at the 2016 European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium taking place in sunny Prague. I didn’t arrive until lunchtime on Monday and with the event already underway I hurried to the venue. First port of call was the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) stand as we’ve got copies of flyers and leaflets on their stand. Why not pop along and have look!

The current excitement and interest in Earth observation (EO) was obvious when I made my way towards the final sessions of the day. The Sentinel-2 and Landsat-8 synergy presentations were packed out, all seats taken and people were crowding the door to watch!

I started with the Thematic Exploitation Platforms session. For a long time the remote sensing community has wanted more data, and now we’re receiving it in ever larger quantities e.g., the current Copernicus missions are generating terabytes of data daily. With the storage requirements this generates there is a lot of interest in the use of online platforms to hold data, and then you upload your code to it, or use tools provided by the platform, rather than everyone trying to download their own individual copies. It was interesting to compare and contrast the approaches taken with hydrology, polar, coastal, forestry and urban EO data.

Tuesday was always going to be my busiest day of the Symposium as I was chairing two sessions and giving a presentation. I had an early start as the 0800 session on Coastal Zones I was co-chairing alongside Bob Brewin –a former PhD student of mine! It was great to see people presenting their results using Sentinel-2. The spatial resolution, 10m for the highest resolution wavebands, allows us to see the detail of suspended sediment resuspension events and the 705 nm waveband can be used for phytoplankton; but we’d still like an ocean colour sensor at this spatial resolution!

In the afternoon I headed into European Climate Data Records, where there was an interesting presentation on a long time-series AVHRR above-land aerosol dataset where the AVHRR data is being vicariously calibrated using the SeaWiFS ocean colour sensor. Great to see innovation within the industry where sensors launched one set of applications can be reused in others. One thing that was emphasised by presenters in both this session, and the Coastal Zone one earlier, was the need to reprocess datasets to create improved data records.

My last session of the day was on Virtual Research, where I was both co-chairing and presenting. It returned to the theme of handling large datasets, and the presentations focused on building resources that make using EO data easier. This ranged from bringing in-situ and EO data together by standardising the formatting and metadata of the in-situ data, through community datasets for algorithm performance evaluation, to data cubes that bring all the data needed to answer specific questions together into a three- (or higher) dimensional array that means you don’t spend all your time trying to read different datasets versus ask questions of them. My own presentation focused on our involvement with the ESA funded E-Collaboration for Earth Observation (E-CEO) project, which developed a collaborative platform  where challenges can be initiated and evaluated; allowing participants to upload their code and have it evaluated against a range of metrics. We’d run an example challenge focused on the comparison of atmospheric correction processors for ocean colour data that, once setup, could easily be rerun.

I’ve already realised that there too many interesting parallel sessions here, as I missed the ocean colour presentations which I’ve heard were great. The good news for me is that these sessions were recorded. So if you haven’t be able to make to Prague in person, or like me you are here but haven’t seen everything you wanted there are going to be selection of sessions to view on ESA’s site, for example, you can see the opening session here.

Not only do events like this gives you to a fantastic chance learn about what’s happening across the EO community, but they also give you the opportunity to catch up with old friends. I am looking forward to the rest of the week!

Supercharging Satellite Data

Impression of EDRS high-speed feeder link relays to Europe. Image courtesy of ESA.

Impression of EDRS high-speed feeder link relays to Europe. Image courtesy of ESA.

Satellite remote sensing is set for a speed turbo boost with the launch of the less than snappily named EDRS. The first node of the European Data Relay System (EDRS), which is effectively a space based satellite data super highway, was launched last Saturday.

Most satellites send data back to Earth only as they pass over ground receiving stations. In addition, they have an orbital track that takes them across the entire planet, travelling at speeds of around 7 000 miles per hour, which means they are only in range of a single receiving station for approximately 10 minutes of each orbit. Given the size of Earth observation (EO) datasets, there are limits to the speed EO data can be sent back from space and it becomes increasingly difficult to download the full amount of data that can be collected. This is partially offset by having a network of ground receiving stations across the world. For example, Landsat has an international ground station (IGS) Network that includes three stations in the USA alongside 15 in other countries across the world.

The EDRS works in a different way. It is based in a much higher orbit than many EO satellites, an orbit called geostationary, which means that the satellite remains above the same place on Earth at all times and thus is in constant contact with its ground station. ERDS collects data from EO satellites by laser, and can stay in contact with the satellites for a much longer period because of its higher height. Once the EDRS has received the data, it immediately relays the data to its ground station.

EDRS-A was launched by piggybacking the Eutelsat 9B satellite, whilst a second satellite, curiously called EDRS-C, is due to launch in 2017. The International Space Station will also be connected up in 2018, and a third satellite is planned for launch in 2020 and will sit over the Asia-Pacific region. It will require further satellites to provide twenty-four hour all orbit data relay coverage.

After a significant testing phase, EDRS is expected to go into service this summer. The European Commission’s Copernicus Programme will be the first major customer, relaying data from its Sentinel satellites.

Once fully operational the system will be capable of relaying up to 50 terabytes of data each day at speeds of up to 1.8 gigabits per second, which is about 90 to 100 times faster than a typical internet connection.

This will dramatically improve access to time-critical data, and will benefit a variety of applications including:

  • Rescue and disaster relief teams that need EO data to focus and support their work.
  • Monitoring fast moving environmental issues such as forest fires, floods, pollution incidents and sea ice zones.
  • Government and security services that could utilise real time data to support their aircraft and unmanned aerial observation vehicles.
  • Monitoring of illegal fishing or piracy events.

EDRS will certainly supercharge EO and remote sensing, offering new opportunities for the provision of near real time applications to a variety of users.

How Many Earth Observation Satellites in Orbit in 2015?

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

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

If you’d like the update for 2016, please click here.

Following last week’s blog on the number of satellites orbiting the Earth, this week we’re focussing on Earth observation (EO) satellites. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database, there were 333 active EO satellites on the 31st August 2015.

Examining these numbers further, reveals almost half have a purpose defined as providing optical imaging, with meteorological satellites account for another 13% and 10% providing radar imaging. There is also a small group with the generic purpose of Earth Science; however, more interestingly is the category of Electric Intelligence. Over 20% of EO satellites have this category, and these satellites have exclusively Military users; there are four countries with these satellites, the USA has the most followed by China, then Russia and France. Who knows what exactly they do?

Of the 333 active EO satellites, 290 are in low earth orbits, 34 in geostationary orbits and 9 are in an elliptical orbit. The oldest EO satellite still operational is the Satélite de Coleta de Dados (SCD) 1 which was launched in 1993; it’s a Brazilian satellite providing environmental data. Unsurprisingly, over half the active EO satellites were launched in the last five years, although this does include Planet Lab’s twenty-eight strong Flock-1 constellation launched in 2014 and 2015, they provide imagery with a spatial resolution between 3 and 5 m.

Picking up on the launch sites we looked at last week. The most popular launch site for EO satellites is the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, followed by the two Chinese sites of Taiyuan Launch Centre and Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. The top five is completed with the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and Cape Canaveral in Florida; although it is worth noting that 22 of Flock-1 constellation were launched from the International Space Station.

In terms of numerical supremacy, the USA controls 34% of all EO satellites, China is next with 21% and then Japan with 6.3%. The UK is listed as controlling only 1 satellite, DMCii’s wide imaging DMC-2 satellite; although, we’ve also participated in 8 of the listed European Space Agency (ESA) EO satellites.

In terms of the future, we’re expecting both Jason-3 and Sentinel-3A to be launched later this year. 2016 could see a variety of launches including ESA’s Sentinel-1B and 2B, cloud, aerosol and radiation mission Earthcare and the ADM-Aeolus Wind satellite; DigitalGlobe’s commercial Worldview 4 satellite that will have a panchromatic resolution of 30 cm and multispectral resolution of 1.20 m; and Japan’s Advanced Land Observing Satellite, ALOS-3.

As we often say, it’s an exciting time to be part of Earth observation! Why not get involved?

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.

America’s Roadmap for Earth Observations

Have you all been keeping up with your reading of policy documents issued by the Executive Office of the President of the United States? If not, you may have missed their National Plan for Civil Earth Observations (EO), issued a couple of weeks ago. Given the US Government is the largest provider of EO data in the world this is important for everyone working in the field, particularly as it estimates that EO activities are worth $30 billion to the US economy.

The National Plan builds on the US National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations issued in 2013; such national Earth observations strategies aren’t unusual, the UK has issued two in recent years with the UK Space Agency Earth Observation Strategy in October 2013 and the Department of Energy and Climate Change Earth Observation Strategy in June 2012. However, what makes the National Plan more interesting, and valuable, is that it ranks US priorities for civil EO together with the actions they intend to take to deliver them.

Landsat 8 showing London, data courtesy of the USGS

Landsat 8 showing London, data courtesy of the USGS

The plan identifies five priorities, with the top two focussing on achieving continuity of long-term sustained EO. The number one priority is to maintain observations considered vital to public safety; national economic and security interests; and critical to scientific research; this includes the continuity of Landsat multispectral information, the GPS network and a variety of weather, land and ocean measurements. Second priority is observations focussing on changes in climate, greenhouse gases, biodiversity and ecosystems often in collaboration with international partners. The third priority surrounds short-term experimental observations of less than seven years duration, such as measurements for specific scientific research, first-of-their-kind observations, innovations and proof of concept work. The final two priorities are around improvements to service-life extensions; and the assessment, and prioritization, of EO systems.

  1. Whilst the priorities are interesting, far more interesting, and valuable, are the eight actions the US Government intends to take to deliver these priorities:
    Increase the integration of EO data, and making data available to everyone irrespective of the original purpose. By eliminating the silo approach to data, it will offer greater potential for innovative research.
  2. Implement the Big Earth Data Initiative (BEDI) to provide uniform methodologies and practices for the handling of EO data to enable a wider group of users, without specialist knowledge, to find, obtain, evaluate, understand, compare and use new and legacy data.
  3. Increase efficiency and cost savings through streamlining processes, coordinated acquisition of data, cooperation and collaborative working with commercial and non- US owned satellites.
  4. Improve spatial resolution, temporal cycle, sample density and geographic coverage of observation networks with both new observation systems and technical upgrades.
  5. Maintain the physical, computing, communication and human infrastructure required to deliver EO.
  6. Encourage private companies to invest in the space sector. However, it makes clear that it intends to maintain the principles of open data sharing which will make it interesting to see how, and where, private firms will get returns on their investments.
  7. Continuing to work with other international bodies and space agencies to provide access to greater EO data and supporting collaborative research.
  8. Using citizen science, crowdsourcing and private sector initiatives to leverage EO data innovations.

The National Plan is a detailed document and it will be interesting to see the UK Space Agency, or perhaps the European Space Agency, version. Any EO business working in, or with firms in, the US needs to begin planning for these developments. Would does your business need to do to reposition your core competences, skill base or infrastructure to be able to exploit these opportunities? Even if you don’t currently work in the US take note, the journey outlined will impact the EO community.

How Many Earth Observation Satellites are in Space?

Space is growing market! With Google recently announcing its purchase of Skybox Imaging, the myriad of organisations jostling to be the first to offer commercial space flights and the launch of two UK satellites last week(TechDemoSat-1 and UKube-1) it’s clear that space is becoming an increasingly congested market place.

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

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

Have you ever wondered about the Earth Observation (EO) market? Who owns and controls the EO satellites you use? I’m sure you know the big names such as the US Government controlling Landsat, ESA’s recent launch of Sentinel 1-A, and so on, but what about the rest? In a recent blog, we used data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to calculate there are currently 3,921 satellites orbiting the Earth; of which 1,167 are active. Today we’re focusing on the EO fleet, and for EO we’re going to count any satellite whose purpose is defined as EO, remote sensing, earth science or meteorology – it’s acknowledged that some satellites have more than one purpose.

According to the UCS database, at the end of January 2014, there were 192 EO satellites, the oldest of which is a Brazilian meteorology/EO satellite, SCD-1, launched in 1993. There are 45 nations/organisations with EO satellites in space and in terms of numerical supremacy, it’s a neck and neck race between China and the USA; China controls 25.5% of the fleet compared to USA’s 23.5% – although just over a third of the USA’ s fleet were jointly launched with other countries. After the front-runners, India has 7.29%, followed by Germany with 4.69% and Russia with 3.65%.

The picture of control becomes more interesting when you look at the four user groups for this EO fleet:

  • 56.77% are listed as used by Governments
  • 25.63% are listed as military satellites
  • 6.25% are commercial satellites
  • 4.17% are listed as being for civil uses; and
  • the remaining 7.18% are listed as being shared between two of the four user groups.

However, the space landscape is changing rapidly. Since the UCS database was updated there have been over 130 satellites launched; which have been dominated by Cubesats. The cheaper costs of Cubesats have removed a significant barrier to entry for new players to space; and we’ll see more commercial organisations becoming interested in space, like Google, and countries who traditionally haven’t had a presence in space getting a foothold. In addition, governments will be looking to launch satellites to build up their own space industry, something the UK has been focussing on for the last couple of years.

This changing environment will affect everyone working in the EO industry, particularly those in downstream activities, as there will be an increased number of datasets. Downstream companies will need to secure access to the new data to ensure they stay ahead of their competitors, and in a more commercial marketplace, this will almost certainly involve a cost. Strategic partnerships are going to become increasingly important in the EO world; and so don’t get left behind, start horizon scanning now and see where you need to position your company.