World Record Satellite Launch

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

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

Next week the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to launch 104 satellites in one go aboard its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) that will take off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

To give an idea of the enormity of what ISRO is attempting, the current world record for satellites launched in a single mission is 37 by Russia in 2014. In addition, over the last fifty years the average number of objects launched in space in an entire year is only 138, according to the Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Furthermore these figures reveal this single mission will exceed the number of objects launched into space for the twelve months of 1996 and for the years 2001 to 2006 inclusive.

This mission was originally planned to launch 83 satellites, then an additional 20 were added to the payload and finally a further nano-satellite was squeezed in. Of these 104 satellites, 3 will be Indian satellites and the remainder will be small satellites from countries including Germany, Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US.

One of the key challenges is to ensure that they do not collide. ISRO plans to achieve this by changing the degree of angle for each batch of satellites launched. It is expected that the entire batch of satellites will be launched within 90 minutes.

This launch is a really exciting one for the Earth Observation community because it includes:

  • Cartosat 2D is the next satellite in India’s Cartosat mission. These satellites carry both high resolution multi- spectral imagers and a panchromatic camera, and the mission focus is cartography. It has a sub-metre spatial resolution, a 10 km swath and a revisit period of four days. This is the primary payload, and will be the heaviest satellite on the launch vehicle at 730 kg.
  • Planet’s Flock 3p which consists of 88 satellites, and will be the largest constellation of satellites ever launched.

Planet was in the news last week as it confirmed it had completed the purchase of satellite imaging company Terra Bella from Google. Terra Bella’s SkySat’s fleet of high resolution satellites will complement the existing global coverage of Planet’s existing courser resolution fleet. When combined with the new satellites, this will help Planet to achieve their aim of imaging the entire globe every day. Thereby, offering a wide range of potential capabilities for Planet in the satellite data reseller/supplier market.

ISRO’s launch is currently scheduled for February 15th and will demonstrate a new level of efficiency for cubesats; something that is becoming increasingly important. We’ll be watching closely, and wish them luck.

Earth observation: Launches Gone, Launches Due & Launches Planned

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

September is a busy month for Earth observation satellites, and so here is a round-up of the month.

Launches Gone
The Indian Space Research Agency (ISRA) launched the INSAT-3DR weather satellite on September 8th into a geostationary orbit. It carries a multi-spectral imager capable of collecting data in six wavebands: visible, shortwave and midwave infrared, water vapour and two thermal bands. Taking an image every 26 minutes it will be used to monitor cloud patterns and storm systems, collecting data about outgoing longwave radiation, precipitation estimates, Sea Surface Temperature (SST), snow cover and wind speeds.

The second major launch took place on September 15th, from Europe’s Space Centre in French Guiana, when five new Earth observation satellites were put into orbit.

  • Four of these satellites, SkySats 4, 5, 6 & 7, were launched for the commercial company Terra Bella – which is owned by Google. It’s reported that they have informally named these satellites after the Star Wars characters: R2D2, Luke, C3PO and Leia! These small satellites provide 90 cm resolution for panchromatic images and 2 m for visible and near infrared wavebands. They also offer video acquired at 30 frames per second with a resolution of 1.1 m.
  • In addition, this launch brought a new country into the Earth Observation satellite owning family, as Peru launched PeruSAT-1 which will be operated by their military authorities. This satellite is in a 695 km sun-synchronous low Earth orbit and will provide imagery in the visible light wavebands with a 70 cm resolution. The data is expected to help study forest health, monitor illegal logging and gold mining, and provide support with natural disasters. However, the details of who can access to the data, the cost and how to access it are still to be made public.

Launches to Come
Last week we said DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-4 satellite was due to launch on the Friday. The problem of having a blog go live before an event means you can be wrong, and on this occasion we were! Friday’s launch was postponed for two days due to a leak during the propellant loading. Unfortunately, a wildfire then broke out near the Vandenburg Air Force base, and the launch had to be postponed a second time. It is hoped it will go ahead before the end of the month.

Following on from INSAT-3DR, ISRA is due to launch another four satellites in the last week of September including:

  • India’s ScatSat, a replacement for the Oceansat-2. Carrying OSCAT (OceanSat-2 Scanning Scatterometer) it will offer data related to weather forecasting, sea surface winds, cyclone prediction and tracking satellite. The data collected will be used by organisations globally including NASA, NOAA and EUMETSAT.
  • A second Earth observation satellite on the launch is Algeria’s first CubeSat – AlSat Nano. It was designed and built at the Surry Space Centre by Algerian Graduate students, as part of joint programme between the UK Space Agency and the Algerian Space Agency. It will carry a camera, magnetometer and will be testing an innovative solar cell which is one tenth of a millimetre thick.

Launches Being Planned
The next country to join the Earth Observation community could well be North Korea. It was reported this week that they had carried out a successful ground test of a new rocket engine which would give them the capacity to launch various satellites, including Earth Observation ones.

Airbus Defence and Space also announced plans this week for four Earth observation satellites to be launched in 2020 and 2021. These will provide very high resolution imagery and continuity for the existing two Pléiades satellites.

As we’ve previously discussed, the trend in launches continues apace for the Earth observation community.

Simplification in the Geospatial Industry

GEO Business 2016 at Business Design Centre, London.

GEO Business 2016 at Business Design Centre, London.

It’s May which means it’s GEO Business time at the Business Design Centre in London. Last year Pixalytics used this event to dip our collective toe into exhibiting, and this year we’ve decided to be the other side and are attending as participants. Louisa and I are here to catch up with what’s happening in the geospatial industry through the conference presentations, the workshop programme and visiting the exhibition stands.

I attended the first conference session which began with a keynote from Tom Cheesewright, Applied Futurist, which highlighted the importance of location in bringing together the physical and digital world. This led into a presentation from Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist from Google, which discussed the changing face of this industry. In particular, he discussed the importance of ensuring we simplify our interfaces so users don’t have to know the detail of how things work, and are only provided with relevant information they want.

Gary Gale from What3Words applies this simplification approach to positioning. In his presentation he argued that address based systems aren’t unique and coordinate systems aren’t easy for people to understand. Therefore, What3Words have proposed a naming system whereby every 3 metre square on the Earth, is referenced by just three words. For example, the Business Design Centre has a position of begins.pulse.status under this system.

A third presentation in this session was given by Prof. Gianvito Lanzolla, from Cass Business School, and discussed what business models may look like in the future. He explained that digitization leads to connectivity and reminded everyone that phones and cameras only converged in 2002. This change is now moving into data, where connected products are becoming increasingly important: with trust and speed being key attributes.

The panel debate discussed the importance of disruptors for driving innovation forward, and that markets mature over time so that only the best offerings remain. There were also thoughts on privacy as people are happy to provide locational information when they wanted a service to know where they are, but that future services need to focus on the location of the individual rather than their provided address.

This theme of simplification and ensuring that products are fit for purpose was picked up in the post-lunch session where John Taylor, from the Land Registry, described how the MapSearch product for deeds was developed. Instead of trying to develop a complex interface with all possible features, they started with a stripped down Minimum Viable Product. John highlighted the importance of discussing the solution with the users at every iteration, making sure the features included were wanted and would be used. This approach resulted in a 65% reduction in manual searches, which has reduced staff costs and saved money for customers as the manual search for deeds was charged, whilst MapSearch is available for free.

Walking around the exhibition provided a good opportunity to catch up with colleagues, and see what was trending. It was noticeable that instrumentation was accompanied by what felt like an increased percentage of stands linked to UAVs (or drones) and data analysis / web mapping companies.

As usual with conferences my head is buzzing with ideas and things to take back to Pixalytics. In a recent blog we discussed the start of our journey to develop our own products and services, and the themes of simplification and fit for purpose are certainly going to feed into our thinking!

Lidar: From space to your garage and pocket

Lidar data overlaid on an aerial photo for Pinellas Point, Tampa Bay, USA. Data courtesy of the NASA Experimental Airborne Advanced Research Lidar (EAARL), http://gulfsci.usgs.gov/tampabay/data/1_lidar/index.html

Lidar data overlaid on an aerial photo for Pinellas Point, Tampa Bay, USA. Data courtesy of the NASA Experimental Airborne Advanced Research Lidar (EAARL), http://gulfsci.usgs.gov/tampabay/data/1_lidar/index.html

Lidar isn’t a word most people use regularly, but recent developments in the field might see a future where is becomes part of everyday life.

Lidar, an acronym for LIght Detection And Ranging, was first developing in the 1960’s and is primarily a technique for measuring distance; however, other applications include atmospheric Lidar which measures clouds, particles and gases such as ozone. The system comprises of a laser, a scanner and GPS position receiving, and it works by emitting a laser pulse towards a target, and measuring the time it takes for the pulse to return.

There are two main types of Lidar used within remote sensing for measuring distance, topographic and bathymetric; topographic Lidar uses a near infrared laser to map land, while bathymetric Lidar uses water-penetrating green light to measure the seafloor. The image at the top of the blog is a bathymetric Lidar overlaying an aerial photograph Pinellas Point, Tampa Bay in the USA, showing depths below sea level in metres. Airborne terrestrial Lidar applications have also been expanded to include measuring forest structures and tree canopies mapping; whilst there’s ground based terrestrial laser scanners for mapping structures such as buildings.

As a user getting freely accessible airborne Lidar data isn’t easy, but there are some places that offer datasets including:

Spaceborne terrestrial Lidar has been limited, as it has to overcome a number of challenges:

  • It’s an active remote sensing technique, which means it requires a lot more power to run, than passive systems and for satellites this means more cost.
  • It’s an optical system that like all optical systems is affected by cloud cover and poor visibility, although interestingly it works more effectively at night, as the processing doesn’t need to account for the sun’s reflection.
  • Lidar performance decreases with inverse square of the distance between the target and the system.
  • Lidar collects individual points, rather than an image, and images are created by combining lots of individual points. Whilst multiple overflies are possible quickly in a plane, with a satellite orbiting the Earth you’re effectively collecting lines of points over a number of days, which takes time.

The only satellite that studied the Earth’s surface using Lidar is NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite – Geoscience Laser Altimeter system (IceSAT-GLAS); launched in 2003, it was decommissioned in 2010. It measured ice sheet elevations and changes, together with cloud and aerosol height profiles, land elevation and vegetation cover, and sea ice thickness; and you find its data products here. IceSAT-GLAS 2 is scheduled for launch in 2017. The Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO), part of the satellite A-Train, is a joint NASA and CNES mission launched in 2006. Originally designed as an atmospheric focused Lidar, it has since developed marine applications that led to the SABOR campaign we discussed in previous blog.

Beyond remote sensing, Lidar may become part of every household in the future, if recent proof-of-concepts come to fruition. The Google self-drive car uses a Lidar as part of its navigation system to generate a 3D maps of the surrounding environment. In addition, research recently published in Optics Express, by Dr. Ali Hajimiri of California Institute of Technology has described the potential of a tiny Lidar device capable of turning mobile phones into 3D scanning devices. Using a nanophotonic coherent imager, the proof-of-concept device has put together a 3-D image of the front of a U.S. penny from half a meter away, with 15-ÎĽm depth resolution and 50-ÎĽm lateral resolution.

Lidar has many remote sensing and surveying applications, however, in the future we all could have lasers in our garage and pockets.

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.