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.

Earth Observation Looking Good in 2017!

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

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

2017 is looking like an exciting one for Earth Observation (EO), judging by the number of significant satellites planned for launch this year.

We thought it would be interesting to give an overview of some of the key EO launches we’ve got to look forward to in the next twelve months.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has planned launches of:

  • Sentinel-2B in March, Sentinel-5p in June and Sentinel-3B in August – all of which we discussed last week.
  • ADM-Aeolus satellite is intended to be launched by the end of the year carrying an Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument. This is essentially a lidar instrument which will provide global measurements of wind profiles from ground up to the stratosphere with 0.5 to 2 km vertical resolution.

From the US, both NASA and NOAA have important satellite launches:

  • NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) Mission is planned for June, and will provide observations of Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere; exploring the boundary between Earth and space.
  • NASA’s ICESat-2 in November that will measure ice sheet elevation, ice sheet thickness changes and the Earth’s vegetation biomass.
  • In June NOAA will be launching the first of its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) missions, a series of next-generation polar-orbiting weather observatories.
  • Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment – Follow-On (GRACE_FO) are a pair of twin satellites to extend measurements from the GRACE satellite, maintaining data continuity. These satellites use microwaves to measure the changes in the Earth’s gravity fields to help map changes in the oceans, ice sheets and land masses. It is planned for launch right at the end of 2017, and is a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

Some of the other launches planned include:

  • Kanopus-V-IK is a small Russian remote sensing satellite with an infrared capability to be used for forest fire detection. It has a 5 m by 5 m spatial resolution over a 2000 km swath, and is planned to be launched next month.
  • Vegetation and Environment monitoring on a New MicroSatellite (VENµS), which is partnership between France and Israel has a planned launch of August. As its name suggests it will be monitoring ecosytems, global carbon cycles, land use and land change.
  • KhalifaSat is the third EO satellite of United Arab Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST). It is an optical satellite with a spatial resolution of 0.75 m for the visible and near infrared bands.

Finally, one of the most intriguing launches involves three satellites that form the next part of India’s CartoSat mission. These satellites will carry both high resolution multi- spectral imagers and a panchromatic camera, and the mission’s focus is cartography. It’s not these three satellites that make this launch intriguing, it is the one hundred other satellites that will accompany them!

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-C37, will aim to launch a record 103 satellites in one go. Given that the current record for satellites launched in one go is 37, and that over the last few years we’ve only had around two hundred and twenty satellites launched in an entire year; this will be a hugely significant achievement.

So there you go. Not a fully comprehensive list, as I know there will be others, but hopefully it gives you a flavour of what to expect.

It certainly shows that the EO is not slowing down, and the amount of data available is continuing to grow. This of course gives everyone working in the industry more challenges in terms of storage and processing power – but they are good problems to have. Exciting year ahead!

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.”

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.

Brexit and the Earth Observation Market

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

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

Last week the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU). For us it was sad day, evidenced by the fact that on voting day Sam was at the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories (EARSeL) Symposium in Bonn, Germany; and I was in Brussels having attended the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) Annual General Meeting the day before – I should say we had both already submitted our postal votes!

This obvious topic for this week is what Brexit means for the UK Space Market, and in turn what it means for us:

European Space Agency (ESA)
ESA is not the EU. It has a different membership and different rules. The UK can remain part of ESA even if it leaves the EU, as evidenced by Norway and Switzerland’s membership, and even Canada’s associate membership.

However, at the ESA Ministerial in December member countries will need to declare how much money they intended to contribute towards ESA programmes. ESA operates a geo-return principle which dictates that countries cannot receive more money back than they put in, and therefore the decision on how much funding to commit at the December meeting will be vital for the UK Space Industry.

At the moment there is a power vacuum in this country following the resignation of the Prime Minister, and it would appear that no major decisions will be made on the future direction of the country until the new Prime Minister is appointed in September. Given the new Prime Minister will want to set up his own Executive arrangements and that the most pressing matter will be Brexit, it is not clear who will be taking the significant decision on the UK’s ESA Contribution.

Lack of commitment at this point has the potential to damage the UK Space Industry far more than Brexit.

European Union
Despite the assertion above that the EU and ESA are different bodies, they are linked organisations. They have a joint European Space Strategy and the EU is the biggest financial contributor to ESA’s budget. In addition, the EU owns a number of programmes such as Copernicus and the Galileo positioning, navigation & timing network.

Outside the EU the UK will probably no longer have a voice within these programmes and it is unlikely the siting of significant infrastructure related to these programmes, such as ground segments, will include this country. Hence, even remaining an active participant within ESA, it is hard to argue against the fact that the UK’s role in the future of the European space industry will diminish.

Single Market
The space industry, like other industries, currently benefits from the single market which makes it easier for European businesses to trade with each other. It is clear that most of our businesses, and politicians, feel that this is a benefit they’d like to keep. The question is whether they will be willing to pay the EU’s price?

If they do, then it is likely that change will be limited. However, if they don’t and the UK leaves the Single Market then trade with Europe will become more difficult. It will of course continue, but there may be tariffs, limitations on exports/imports and the potential for businesses to open or close offices within the UK or Europe to best maintain their access to both the UK and European markets.

Scientific Collaboration
We collaborate with a lot of EU companies, scientists and students. Now again there is no suggestion that this would stop, but everything will become more complicated.

  • How easy and quickly will people be able to get visa to travel to Europe or vice versa? This could impact attendance at meetings or conferences.
  • Will European Conferences still come to the UK?
  • What will be the impact on placement programmes such as ERASMUS? ERASMUS has different membership to the EU, like ESA, but will the UK still be as attractive to those students?

Of real scientific concern is the emerging anecdotal evidence that UK researchers are being removed from EU based funding bids, such as Horizon 2020, as the consortia fear their bids will be less attractive if the UK is involved. If true, this is will impact scientific research, at least in the short term until our involved in such programmes is clarified.

UK Space Industry
The UK has an expanding, exciting and innovative space industry and the future is certainly not dependant on us being part of the EU. However, it would be naïve to suggest that we don’t face challenges ahead following Brexit. There are a number of key elements we need in place to ensure that our industry can continue to thrive:

  1. Commitment to our continued membership of ESA, supported by funding at the December ministerial.
  2. Commitment that the resources the UK Science and Space sectors received via EU funding, such as Horizon 2020, must be replaced with equivalent UK based funding calls.
  3. Not to let the Brexit negotiations overtake everything else. For example, it must not stop continuing progress on elements such as a UK Spaceport.

Pixalytics
We have a variety of strong European links including:

  • European contracts
  • Scientific collaboration with European Researchers/Institutes
  • European placement students spending time working with us
  • Contracts that are either directly, or indirectly, based on ESA funding
  • Membership of European Associations

We believe we have a strong business, with good value products and a positive brand. However, like all other UK businesses, we are going to need to assess our current business strategy, and decisions we need to make, through the prism of Brexit as further information is known.

Conclusion
Almost one week on from the UK vote, I think our position is best summed up by paraphrasing the famous statement of US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:

There are some things we do not know, but there are also things we don’t know we don’t know and those will be the difficult ones.

Or to put it more succinctly, we face months, and years, of uncertainty! What does everyone else think?

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!

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-2A Data Released Into The Wild

False Colour Image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

False Colour Image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Sentinel -2A is already producing some fantastic images, and last week ESA announced the availability of Sentinel-2A orthorectified products in the Sentinel Data Hub. This will enable Sentinel-2 data to be accessed more widely, although as we found out this week there are still a few teething problems to sort out.

At the top of the blog is a stunning image of the Chinese city of Qingdao, in the eastern Shangdong province. The false colour image shows the city of Qingdao and the surrounding area with the centre dominated by Jiaozhou Bay, which is natural inlet to the Yellow Sea. The bay is 32 km long and 27 km wide, and generally has a depth of around ten to fifteen metres; although there are deeper dredged channels to allow larger ships to enter the local ports. The bay itself has decreased by around 35% since 1928, due to urban and industrial growth in the area.

Jiaozhou Bay Bridge a sub-set of a false colour image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Jiaozhou Bay Bridge a sub-set of a false colour image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

There is a tenuous linguistic link between Plymouth, where Pixalytics is based, and Qingdao. Plymouth is branded as Britain’s Ocean City and Qingdao is home to the Ocean University of China. Qingdao does however, have a much greater claim to fame. It is home to the World’s Longest Bridge. The Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is 42 km long and transects the bay. It is clearly visible on the satellite image, although you might not be able to see it on the thumbnail image at the top of the blog. Therefore, if you look at the subset to the right, you should be able to see bridge clearly and boats on the bay.

Now Sentinel-2A data has been released into the Sentinel Data Hub, images like this are waiting for everyone in the world to discover. We’ve been testing Sentinel-2A data for a few months already, as were part of the community who gave feedback to ESA on the quality of the data. Sentinel-2A carries a Multispectral Imager (MSI) that has 13 spectral bands with 4 visible and near infra-red spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 10 m, 6 short wave infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 20 m and 3 atmospheric correction bands with a spatial resolution of 60 m. When the identical Sentinel-2B is launched in late 2016, the pair will offer a revisit time of only 5 days.

The data from Sentinel-2A forms part of the Copernicus program and is freely available to use, as such it is bound to be very popular. So popular in fact, we found it difficult to get on the Data Hub this week, with slow data speeds and a few elements of the functionality not working efficiently. Although, we’re sure that these will be resolved quickly. Also, there are user guides and tutorials available on the website to help people use the data hub.

The Sentinel-2A data release, following on from the microwave data from Sentinel-1, is a watershed moment for Earth Observation companies, given their spatial resolution, revisit time and free availability, they offer a unique opportunity to develop satellite data services. We’re intending to use this data, are you?

How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2015?

Image courtesy of ESA Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist's impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

Image courtesy of ESA
Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist’s impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

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

A satellite can be defined as an artificial body placed in orbit around a planet in order to collect information, or for communication. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) monitors, and maintains a searchable database of, objects launched into space. According to UNOOSA, at the end of August 2015, there were 4 077 satellites orbiting the Earth, which equates to 56.63% of all satellites ever launched.

Of the satellites no longer in orbit, 1 329 have been recovered, 1 539 decayed and 175 deorbited; and interestingly given the definition above, 47 are on the Moon, 15 on Venus, 13 on Mars and 1 on the asteroid EROS. Last year also saw more launches than any other year in history with 239, by the end of August this year we’d only had 106 launches.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) details the currently active satellites through their database, and they note that at the end of August 2015, of the 4,077 satellites in orbit only 1,305 are active. This means there is currently 2 772 pieces of junk metal circling above your head!

So what are the thirteen hundred active satellites actually doing? According to the UCS over 50% of these satellites have a purpose described as communications. The secondary biggest purpose is Earth observation with 26% of active satellites, 333 in total, and we’ll look at these in more detail next week. The next largest category is technology demonstration with 141 satellites, followed by navigation with 91 satellites and finally the remaining 5% of satellites have a purpose described as space science.

Commercial users account for 52% of the satellites, followed by Governments with 30%, 27% have military users and 8% are civilian users. The percentages total more than one hundred percent as some satellites have for multiple purposes. The civil users are mostly Universities or other academic institutes that have launched their own satellites.

The USA is biggest operator of active satellites with over 500, followed by China and then Russia. The UK is listed as the operator on only 40 satellites, although we also have a share in the 26 European Space Agency (ESA) ones.

An interesting point is the most popular launch sites for satellites. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia has launched the most satellites in history, over 2,000. This is followed by Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with 1,500, with this site being famous for launching both Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight in Vostock 1. After this are the American sites of Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, followed by the ESA launch site of French Guiana.

The UK currently doesn’t feature anywhere on the list, but the first steps to changing this are underway. The UK Government is planning to have a spaceport established in this country by 2018; with three sites in Scotland short-listed together with Newquay in Cornwall, which is an exciting prospect for Pixalytics as we are both based in south-west. The initial focus is likely to be sub-orbital flights, but who knows what could be launched in time.

When you next look up into the sky, remember that there are over four thousand hunks of metal shooting around the Earth at speeds of many thousands of the kilometres an hour high above the clouds!