Will Earth Observation’s power base shift in 2017?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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