Controlling the Space Industry Narrative

The narrative of the satellite industry over the last week had all the components of a blockbuster novel or film: with new adventures beginning, dramatic challenges to overcome, redemption and an emotional end.

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

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

Like lots of good stories, we start with those characters setting off on new adventures. Firstly, China launched its most powerful imaging satellite, Gaofen-2. It carries a High Resolution Optical Imager capable of providing images with a spatial resolution of 80cm in panchromatic mode and 3.2m in multispectral mode, and has a swath width of 48km. It is the second in series of seven Earth observation (EO) satellites, following Gaofen-1 launched in April 2013, which will provide environmental monitoring, disaster management support, urban planning and geographical mapping. The Long March 4B rocket launched Gaofen-2, redeeming itself following a failure last December causing the loss of the CBERS-3 EO satellite. The second significant launch was from the International Space Station on the 19th August, when the first pair from the twenty-eight constellation satellites of Flock 1B were launched; with further pairs sent on the 20th, 21st and 23rd. Flock 1B is part of three earth imaging nanosat constellations from Plant Labs, providing images with a spatial resolution of between 3 – 5m.

ESA’s Galileo satellites, Doresa and Milena, provided the drama by failing to reach their planned altitude of 29.9km, reaching an orbit of 26.9km; in addition, their inclination angle is 49.8 degrees to the equator, rather than 55 degrees. They were the fifth and sixth satellites in Europe’s version of the American GPS satellite navigation system, launched on the Soyuz rocket. Getting the satellites to the correct position is likely to require more fuel than they carry. Like Long March 4B, Soyuz will get its chance of redemption in December with the launch of the next two Galileo satellites.

The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a joint mission between NASA and Japan Aerospace, provides the emotional end to our story with the announcement last week that it had run out of fuel. Launched in 1997, TRMM had a three year life expectancy, but will now provide an incredible nineteen years worth of data. It will continue collection until early 2016, when its instruments will be turned off in preparation for re-entry.

It’s interesting to see how this news has been reported in the mainstream media, little mention of China’s progress, or the second Flock constellation or the amazing longevity of TRMM; instead, the focus was the failure of the Galileo satellites. There is rarely widespread coverage of the successful launches of satellites, but there is a push within the UK for the community to celebrate our successes more so the full range of space activities can be seen.

Earth observation is all about data and images, and whilst these may interest people, it’s only through the power of storytelling that we can describe the positives of the industry motivating and inspiring people. Remember to create stories for your industry, and your company, or someone else will dictate the narrative.

Measuring Water Heights, upcoming presentation at GEO-Business

Freshwater is integral to our survival on earth; whether it’s for drinking, growing food, sanitation or energy production. However, water is also a finite natural resource controlled by the complex and evolving water cycle. Many people know that 97% of the world’s water is salt water, but of the remaining freshwater 70% is locked in ice caps and of what remains only 1% is readily accessible.

The bodies of UN Water and estimate that 85% of the world’s population live in the driest half of the planet; taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country uses for an entire day and more people in the world have access to a mobile phone than a toilet. Global demand for water is forecast to increase by 55% in the next 40 years, added to which climate evolution is going to change the distribution and availability of freshwater across the world. Last winter’s weather in the UK demonstrated how important it’s going to be to for us to adapt to new water patterns.

Satellite remote sensing has an important role to play in helping the world monitor and manage this natural resource. From the identification and mapping of water bodies by optical remote sensing, through the monitoring of hydrologic variables (like rainfall, soil moisture and water quality) to real time flood monitoring and disaster relief. Remote sensing applications are offering real value to the world and with launch of Sentinel-1 the European Copernicus data stream has started to come online; this week I’m at the Sentinel-2 for Science Workshop. Sentinel-2 is a high resolution optical mission due to launch in early 2015.

Water height calculation in the Congo using Jason 2

Water height calculation in the Congo using Jason 2

Over the last year I’ve developed a system to determine water heights in estuaries, rivers and lakes using satellite optical and altimetry data. Radar altimeters emit short bursts of microwave energy towards the earth’s surface, and the time delay of the return of those pulses gives a height. It becomes complicated over inland water bodies, especially those that are relatively small (not large inland seas) and varying river banks and general land topography; however there are improved approaches and new data coming on-stream.

Testing my altimetry based height determination has given positive results, when compared to in situ data taken for the Congo; the first study site. By using this approach I was able to provide the customer with water heights without them needing to get data from a water gauge. The other major advantage was the generation of a historical time series for several sites of interest where water gauges had never been installed.

Wednesday next week, 28th May, I will be giving a presentation on my work at the 2014 Geo-Business Conference in London and I’ll give you more details in a future blog. If you’re at Geo-Business, come up and say hello, otherwise come back to the blog for more details.