Brexit Biting for UK Space Industry

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

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

UK companies involved in European Commission space programmes face an uncertain future according to media reports over the last week. The Financial Times reported that the European Commission wanted two key clauses in the contracts for work on the next part of the €10 bn Galileo Satellite Navigation System. These would allow the Commission to:

  • Cancel the contracts, without penalty, of any supplier who is no longer based in an European Union (EU) member state; and then
  • Charge that supplier all costs associated with finding their replacements.

Clearly, this poses a huge risk to UK companies given the fact that the UK has indicated its intention to leave the EU in 2019 by triggering Article 50. We wrote about the potential impacts of Brexit last year, and whilst we did pick up concerns over Galileo we didn’t see this coming!

Should the UK Space Industry be concerned?
Yes!

Despite reports to the contrary, this does not mean we are leaving the European Space Agency (ESA). We are very much remaining part of ESA, something that was confirmed at the ministerial in December. This solely relates to programmes owned, and funded, by the European Union (EU). However, it is concerning for two key reasons:

  • Anyone who has tried to negotiate contract terms with large governmental organisations will be aware that it tends to be a binary take it or leave it scenario. Therefore, if these clauses are in the contract, then it is highly likely companies will have to sign up to them to get the work.
  • It may not just be Galileo, the Copernicus Programme could be next. Copernicus is also an EU programme, and therefore it has to be a possibility that they may apply the same clauses to future Copernicus tenders. Galileo isn’t something Pixalytics is involved with, but if this was extended to Copernicus we’d be potentially impacted and would need to make choices.

What Can UK Companies Do?
The options are limited:

  • Bid anyway! Accept the potential financial risk, or hope that it will get resolved within the various Brexit negotiations. Given the size of these contracts, it will be a brave CEO who goes down this route.
  • Not bidding for any Galileo contract is probably the financially prudent option, but equally it removes a significant revenue stream.
  • Move to another European Country. I think there will be a number of companies who will be looking at moving some, or all, of their operations to another EU member state.

Any Causes For Optimism?
Not really, but there are tiny strands of hope.

  • Security – A key issue with Galileo is security. Currently, all EU members have agreements on security and when the UK leaves the EU, it leaves that agreement. Of course, security is just one of hundreds of agreements the UK will be hoping to discuss with the EU through Brexit negations. If security agreements are reached with the UK, maybe the position will change.
  • UK Election – Whilst writing this blog, the UK Prime Minister has announced a General Election in June. Parliamentary changes may influence the type of Brexit we have, but again it is highly unlikely.

It was fairly obvious, despite the contrary political rhetoric, that Brexit would have huge consequences on the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The UK’s space industry looks as though it will be at the forefront of those consequences. Forget 2019, the bite of Brexit is being felt today!

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.

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.

Sentinel’s Milestone and Millstone

Sentinel-1A multi-temporal colour composite of land coverage across Ireland. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2015], processed by ESA. Data courtesy of ESA.

Sentinel-1A multi-temporal colour composite of land coverage across Ireland. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2015], processed by ESA. Data courtesy of ESA.

There was be a significant milestone achieved for the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme with the launch of the Sentinel-1B satellite. It was the fourth satellite launched, and will complete the first of the planned constellations as the second Sentinel-1 satellite.

It was launched on 25th April from French Guiana. In addition, to Sentinel-1B, three student cubesats were onboard the Soyuz rocket. Students from the University of Liege, Polytechnic of Turin, Italy, and the University of Aalborg have developed 10cm square cubesats as part of ESA’s ‘Fly Your Satellite!’ programme which will be deployed into orbit.

Sentinel-1B is an identical twin to Sentinel-1A which was launched on the 3rd April 2014, and they will operate as a pair constellation orbiting 180 degrees apart at an altitude of approximately 700 km. They both carry a C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument and together will cover the entire planet every six days, although the Arctic will be revisited every day and Europe, Canada and main shipping routes every three days.

Sentinel-1 data has a variety of applications including monitoring sea ice, maritime surveillance, disaster humanitarian aid, mapping for forest, water and soil management. The benefits were demonstrated this week with:

  • Issuing a video showing the drop in rice-growing productivity in Mekong River Delta over the last year; and
  • The multi-temporal colour composite of land coverage of Ireland as shown at the top of this post. It was created from 16 radar scans over 12 days during May 2015, where:
    • The blues represent changes in water or agricultural activities such as ploughing, the yellows represent urban centres, vegetated fields and forests appear in green and the reds and oranges represent unchanging features such as bare soil.

With this constellation up and working, the revisit speed has the chance to be the game changer in the uptake of space generated data.

Sadly there’s a millstone hanging around the Copernicus Programme neck hindering this change – accessing the data remains difficult for commercial organisations.

Currently, selecting and downloading Sentinel data is a painful process, one that mostly either does not work, or is so slow you give up on it! This has been created by the size of the datasets and popularity of the data that’s free to access for everyone worldwide.

There are a number of ways of getting access to this data, with varying success in our experience, including:

  • EU’s Copernicus Hub – Operational, but slow to use. Once you have selected the data to download, either manually or via a script, the process is extremely slow and often times out before completing the downloading.
  • USGS – Offers Sentinel-2, but not Sentinel-1, data via it’s EarthExplorer and Glovis interfaces. The download process is easier, but the format of Sentinel-2 makes searching a bit strange in Glovis and it’s only a partial representation of the available acquisitions.
  • The UK Collaborative Ground Segment Access, despite signing an agreement with ESA in March 2015, has not yet been made available for commercial entities.
  • It is possible to apply for access to the academically focused STFC Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) system, which provides FTP access, and that has good download speed’s for the data that’s available.
  • Amazon’s archive of Sentinel-2 data which has good download speeds, but is cumbersome to search without the development of software i.e. scripts.

There are also further services and routes being developed to facilitate searching and downloading from the various archives, e.g., there’s a QGIS ‘Semi-Automatic Classification’ plugin and EOProc SatCat service for Sentinel-2. With the Sentinel-3A data coming online soon the situation will get more complex for those of us trying to use data from all the Sentinel missions.

Getting the satellites into space is great, but that is only the first step in widening the use of space generated data. Until the data is put into the hands of people who use it to create value and inspire people, the Sentinel data will not fulfill its full potential in widening the use of space generated data.

Satellite Data Continuity: Hero or Achilles Heel?

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

One of satellite remote sensing’s greatest strengths is the archive of historical data available, allowing researchers to analyse how areas change over years or even decades – for example, Landsat data has a forty year archive. It is one of the unique aspects of satellite data, which is very difficult to replicate by other measurement methods.

However, this unique selling point is also proving an Achilles Heel to industry as well, as highlighted last week, when a group of 179 researchers issued a plea to the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide a replacement for the aging Cryosat-2 satellite.

Cryosat-2 was launched in 2010, after the original Cryosat was lost during a launch failure in 2005, and is dedicated to the measurement of polar ice. It has a non sun-synchronous low earth orbit of just over 700 km with a 369 day ground track cycle, although it does image the same areas on Earth every 30 days. It was originally designed as three and half year mission, but is still going after six years. Although, technically it has enough fuel to last at least another five years, the risk of component failure is such that researchers are concerned that it could cease to function at any time

The main instrument onboard is a Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) operating in the Ku Band. It has two antennas that form an interferometer, and operates by sending out bursts of pulses at intervals of only 50 microseconds with the returning echoes correlated as a single measurement; whereas conventional altimeters send out single pulses and wait for the echo to return before sending out another pulse. This allows it to measure the difference in height between floating ice and seawater to an accuracy of 1.3cm, which is critical to measurement of edges of ice sheets.

SIRAL has been very successful and has offered a number of valuable datasets including the first complete assessment of Arctic sea-ice thickness, and measurements of the ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland. However, these datasets are simply snapshots in time. Scientists want to continue these measurements in the coming years to improve our understanding of how sea-ice and ice sheets are changing.

It’s unlikely ESA will provide a follow on satellite, as their aim is to develop new technology and not data continuity missions. This was part of the reason why the EU Copernicus programme of Sentinel satellites was established, whose aim is to provide reliable and up to date information on how our planet and climate is changing. The recently launched Sentinel-3 satellite can undertake some of the measurements of Cryosat-2, it is not a replacement.

Whether the appeal for a Cryosat-3 will be heard is unclear, but what is clear is thought needs to be given to data continuity with every mission. Once useful data is made available, there will be a desire for a dataset to be continued and developed.

This returns us to the title of the blog. Is data continuity the hero or Achilles Heel for the satellite remote sensing community?

Sentinel-3 Sets Sail

Artist's view of Sentinel-3. Image courtesy of ESA–Pierre Carril.

Artist’s view of Sentinel-3. Image courtesy of ESA–Pierre Carril.

At 17.57 GMT yesterday (16th February 2016) Sentinel-3 set sail from the Plesetsk Space Centre in Russia, heading for its 814 km sun-synchronous low Earth orbit. Like all the other Sentinel launches, we were at home watching the live feed!

This is the third Sentinel launch of the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme, following Sentinel-1 and 2. Sentinel-3, like its predecessors, will be part of a twin satellite constellation with Sentinel-3B’s launch expected to be in 2017.

Sentinel-3 carries four scientific instruments:

  • Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) will measure temperatures of both the sea and land, to an accuracy of better than 0.3 K. This instrument has 9 spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 500 m for visible/near-infrared wavelengths and 1 km for the thermal wavelengths; and has swath widths of 1420 km at nadir and 750 km looking backwards. It’s worth noting that two thermal infrared spectral wavebands are optimised for fire detection, providing the fire radiative power measurement.
  • Ocean and Land Colour Instrument (OLCI) has 21 spectral bands (400–1020 nm) focussed on ocean colour and vegetation measurements. All bands have a spatial resolution of 300 m with a swath width of 1270 km.
  • Synthetic Aperture Radar Altimeter (SRAL) which has dual frequency Ku and C bands. It offers 300 m spatial resolution after SAR processing, and is based on the instruments from the CryoSat and Jason missions. This will be first satellite altimeter to provide 100% coverage of the Earth’s surfaces in SAR mode.
  • Microwave Radiometer (MWR) dual frequency at 23.8 & 36.5 GHz, it is used to derive atmospheric column water vapour measurements for correcting the SRAL instrument.

The scientific instruments are supported by four positioning/navigation instruments to ensure the satellite maintains its precise orbit.

Sentinel-3 will mainly be focussing on ocean measurements and will include the measurement of sea-surface height (similar to the recently launched Jason-3); however it will also measure sea surface temperature, ocean colour, surface wind speed, sea ice thickness and ice sheets. Whereas over land the satellite will provide indices of vegetation, measuring the height of rivers and lakes and help monitor wildfires.

Sentinel-3 is a very exciting satellite for us, as the data and products it will produce are very much within the wheelhouse of the services that Pixalytics offers. Sam’s background is in ocean colour, she’s world renown for atmospheric correction research and we offer a variety of agritech services including vegetation indices. You can probably now see why we’re so excited!

The satellite is currently in its commissioning phases where ESA tests the data produced by the sensors. This is undertaken in conjunction with a group of users, and Pixalytics is one of them! This phase is expected to last five months, after which the satellite will be transferred to Eumetsat and the data should be released.

Like all the data from the Copernicus programme, it will be offered free of charge to users. This will challenge organisations, like us, to see what innovative services we can offer with this new data stream. Exciting times ahead!