It’s British Science Week!


Artist’s rendition of science – skovoroda/123RF Stock Photo

This week is British Science Week! It’s an annual event promoting science, technology, engineering and maths across the UK, and this year runs from the 9th to the 18th March.

Last year over one million people got involved, which is fantastic for encouraging and inspiring everyone to engage with science. This year there are a number of ways to participate:

Attending Events
Specific events are taking place all around the country and you can find them all here. There aren’t too many happening in Devon – something we’ll have to think about for next year!

We’d like to highlight the Family Fun Day happening next Saturday, 17th March, at the Norman Lockyer Observatory in Sidmouth. It is a great venue that we know well as Sam gave an Earth observation lecture there last year. On Saturday they will have hands-on activities, planetarium shows, solar and meteor observing amongst other things.

Citizen Science Project – The Plastic tide
This is our favourite activity this year as it’s remote sensing based! Its aim is to develop an automated classification algorithm to detect, identify and monitor marine litter from drone images.

Go onto the website, look at the images that appear and tag any marine litter that you see – it’s as easy as that! There are some guides and help from the team at Zooniverse who are developing the algorithm. I did my first fifteen minutes in the middle of writing this blog!

Everyone knows the problems of plastics in the oceans and the negative impact they have on pollution, wildlife and the food chain. This project is a fun and simple way for anyone to help clean our oceans and beaches. It is hoped that 250,000 images will be tagged during this week. Why don’t you contribute a few?

Run To The Deep – A virtual 10K Race
Run to the Deep is a free app which will accompany you whilst you run 10 000 metres to the ocean floor. It includes commentary from Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of the marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau, and provides information about creatures, seascapes and things you’ll find deep in the ocean.

Schools Poster Competition
Schools are encouraged to get children designing posters on the theme of exploration and discovery, and enter the best ones into the national competition.

Download Activity Packs
There are downloadable activity packs available from the website for a variety of ages providing lots of exercises and activities promoting science, technology, engineering and maths.

British Science Week is run by the British Science Association (BSA) with funding from UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The origins of the BSA are fascinating, and have technology roots! In 1830 Professor Charles Babbage, one of the pioneers of computing, published ‘Reflections on the Decline of Science in England.’ It’s a fascinating read and one of the actions taken in response to this was the founding of the BSA in 1831, although at the time it was called the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Appropriately, also taking place this week in Sheffield is the 2018 Wavelength Conference, the student and early career scientist conference of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society. Pixalytics sponsored this event and we hope to have a review of the conference in next week’s blog.

So whatever you are doing this week, try to include some science!

Picking Up Penguins From Space

Danger Islands, off Antarctica. Landsat-8 image acquired on 7th December 2017. Image courtesy of NASA/USGS.

World Wildlife Day is the 3rd March, and so fittingly this blog is looking at how satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques were used to recently discover an unknown colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands off the Antarctica Peninsula in the north-western Weddell Sea. Adélie penguins only live along the Antarctic coast, and they grow to a height of around 70cm and weigh between three and six kilograms.

The paper by ‘Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot by Borowicz et al was published in Scientific Reports on the 2nd March 2018. It is interestingly not only because of the discovery of unknown penguins but also because the research combines historic aerial imagery, satellite imagery, drone footage and remote sensing techniques.

The research has its roots in an earlier paper by Lynch and Schwaller from 2014, entitled ‘Mapping the Abundance and Distribution of Adélie Penguins Using Landsat-7: First Steps towards an Integrated Multi-Sensor Pipeline for Tracking Populations at the Continental Scale.’ It describes the development of an algorithm to analyse Landsat and high resolution imagery from WorldView-2 to estimate the size of penguin colonies based on the extent of the guana area. A classification approach was developed from a training dataset of 473 Landsat-7 pixels covering existing Adeline colonies, supported by over 10,000 pixels relating to features such as rock, soil and vegetation.

In the recently published paper, of which Heather Lynch was also a co-author, the team combined a range of imagery alongside some in-situ data to achieve their results. Different types of imagery were used:

  • High Resolution Imagery: Areas of guano staining on the Danger Islands were identified manually from WorldView-2 scenes.
  • Historical aerial photographs: Images taken by Falkland Islands Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition (FIDASE) on the 31st January 1957 were digitally scanned and geo-referenced to the WorldView-2 data. They were then divided into polygons and analysed using manual classification processing using the open source QGIS software.
  • Landsat: The algorithm previously developed by Lynch and Schwaller was enhanced to work with data from Landsat-4, 7 and 8 by calculating the mean difference of similar bands from Landsat-4 and 8 compared to Landsat-7, and then adjusting based on the mean differences in each spectral band. The enhanced algorithm was then used to classify the penguin colony areas.
  • Drone data: Using a 1.2 megapixel camera flown at height of between 25 m and 45 m, captured footage was processed to produce georeferenced orthomosaics of the Danger Islands. Machine learning techniques were then applied using a deep neural network to locate and identify potential penguins. A training dataset of 160 images with 1237 penguins, followed by a validation dataset of 93 images with 673 penguins was used to teach the network. Once fully trained it analysed all the islands, and the results were validated with a number of manual counts. The scientists worked on an accuracy of plus or minus ten percent for the automated counts, although the variation with the in-situ counts was only 0.6 percent.

The outcome of this research was an identification of 751,527 pairs of previously unknown Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands. More surprisingly is that this increases the world estimates of this type of penguin by almost 50%, when it had been thought that the population had been declining for the last 40 years. The historical aerial imagery has led scientists to speculate that this new colony has remained constant for around the last 60 years in contrast to other known colonies.

This work is a great example of not only how much can be achieved with free-to-access imagery, but also how satellite imagery is helping us discover new things about our planet.

Monitoring Water Quality from Space

Algal Blooms in Lake Erie, around Monroe, acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data Courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Two projects using Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor water quality caught our eye recently. As we’re in process of developing two water quality products for our own online portal, we’re interested in what everyone else is doing!

At the end of January UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme launched a tool to monitor global water quality. The International Initiative on Water Quality (IIWQ) World Water Quality Portal, built by EOMAP, provides:

  • turbidity and sedimentation distribution
  • chlorophyll-a concentration
  • Harmful Algal Blooms indicator
  • organic absorption
  • surface temperature

Based on optical data from Landsat and Sentinel-2 it can provide global surface water mosaics at 90 m spatial resolution, alongside 30 m resolution for seven pilot river basins.  The portal was launched in Paris at the “Water Quality Monitoring using Earth Observation and Satellite-based Information” meeting and was accompanied by an exhibition on “Water Quality from the Space – Mesmerizing Images of Earth Observation”.

The tool, which can be found here, focuses on providing colour visualizations of the data alongside data legends to help make it as easy as possible to use. It is hoped that this will help inform and educate policy makers, water professionals and the wider public about the value of using satellite data from monitoring water resources.

A second interesting project, albeit on a smaller scale, was announced last week which is going to use Sentinel-2 imagery to monitor water quality in Scottish Lochs. Dr Claire Neil, from the University of Stirling, is leading the project and will be working with Scottish Environment Protection Agency. It will use reflectance measures to estimate the chlorophyll-a concentrations to help identify algal blooms and other contaminants in the waters. The project will offer an alternative approach to the current water quality monitoring, which uses sampling close to the water’s edge.

An interesting feature of the project, particularly for us, is the intention to focus on developing this work into an operational capability for SEPA to enable them to improve their approach to assessing water quality.

This transition from a ‘good idea’ into an operational product that will be used, and therefore purchased, by end users is what all EO companies are looking for and we’re not different. Our Pixalytics Portal which we discussed a couple of weeks ago is one of the ways we are trying to move in that direction. We have two water quality monitoring products on it:

  • Open Ocean Water Quality product extracts time-series data from a variety of 4 km resolution satellite datasets from NASA, giving an overview what is happening in the water without the need to download a lot of data.
  • Planning for Coastal Airborne Lidar Surveys product provides an assessment of the penetration depth of a Lidar laser beam, from an airborne survey system, within coastal waters based on the turbidity of the water. This ensures that companies who plan overflights can have confidence in how far their Lidar will see.

We’re just at the starting point in productizing the services we offer, and so it is always good to see how others are approaching the similar problem!

Five Learning Points For Developing An Earth Observation Product Portal

Landsat mosaic image of the Isle of Wight. Data courtesy of NASA.

This week we’re gently unveiling our Pixalytics Portal at the DATA.SPACE 2018 Conference taking place in Glasgow.

We’ve not attended DATA.SPACE before, but great feedback from some of the last years attendees convinced us to come. It’s an international conference focusing on the commercial opportunities available through the exploitation of space-enabled data and so it seemed the perfect place to demonstrate our new development.

Regular readers will know we’ve had the product portal idea for a little while, but it often went to the back of the work queue when compared to existing work, bid preparation and our other developments. Hence, six months ago we pinpointed the DATA.SPACE as our unveiling event!

On the 1st and 2nd February at Technology & Innovation Centre in Glasgow we have a stand where we’re inviting everyone to come up and have a look at the portal and give us feedback on the idea, principles and the look and feel of the portal.

We’re demonstrating five products, and we’re looking to expand this, these are:

  • Landscape Maps of the UK
  • Water Extent Mapping
  • Flood Water Mapping
  • Coastal Airborne Lidar Survey Planning Datasets
  • Open Ocean Water Quality Parameters

We’re not just attending, we’re exhibiting and Sam’s presenting!! So we’re going to have the full triumvirate conference experience. Sam is presenting in the first day’s second session titled ‘Looking at our Earth’ which starts at 11.10am. Her presentation is called ‘Growing Earth Observation By Being More Friendly.’

Developing this portal to its current state has been a really interesting journey. When we began we didn’t know why some of the larger companies haven’t cracked this already! Six months later and we’ve started to understand the challenges!

We thought it might be helpful to reveal are five top learning points for any other SME’s in our industry considering developing a portal. They are:

  1. Challenging the Digital e-commerce Process: Standard digital e-commerce systems allow customers to purchase a product and then download it immediately. The need to have an additional step of a few minutes, or even hours, to undertake data processing complicates things. It means that simple off-the-shelf plug-ins won’t work.
  2. Don’t Go for Perfection: Building a perfect portal will take time. We’ve adopted the approach of Eric Ries, author of The Startup Way, who advocates building a system for ten purchases. We’re perhaps a bit beyond that, but certainly we know that this will only be the first iteration of our portal.
  3. Linking The Moving Parts: Our portal has a web-front end, a cloud processing backend and the need to download requested data. We’ve tried to limit the amount of data and processing needed, but we can’t eliminate it entirely. This means there are a lot of moving parts to get right, and a lot of error capturing to be done!
  4. Legal & Tax issues: Sorting out the products is only one part of the process, don’t forget to do the legal and tax side as that has implications on your approach. We have learnt a lot about the specific requirements of digital services in e-commerce!
  5. Have a deadline: We chose to exhibit at DATA.SPACE to give us a deadline. We knew if we didn’t have a hard deadline we’d still be debating the products to include, and have developed none of them! The deadline has moved us really close to having a portal.

If you’re at DATA.SPACE this week, please come up and say hello. If you’ve got a few minutes to spare we’d love to get you feedback on our portal.

Four Key Earth Observation Trends For 2018

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

This week we’re looking at this year’s key trends in Earth Observation (EO) that you need to know.

Rise of the Data Buckets!
EO data is big! Anyone who has tried to process EO data knows the issues of downloading and storing large files, and as more and more data becomes available these challenges will grow. Amazon recognised this issue and set up Amazon Web Services which automatically downloads all freely available data such as Copernicus and Landsat, offering people who want to process data a platform where they don’t have to download the data – for a price!

The European Commission also picked up on this and awarded four commercial contracts at the end of last year to establish Copernicus Data and Information Access Services (DIAS) which will offer scalable processing platforms for the development of value-added products and services.

The four successful DIAS consortiums are led by Serco Europe, Creotech Instruments, ATOS Integration & Airbus Defence and Space respectively, and a fifth DIAS is planned to be established by EUMETSAT. It’s hoped this will kick-start the greater use and exploitation of Copernicus data.

Continued Growth of Data
There are some exciting EO launches planned this year continuing to increase the amount of data available. Earlier this week China launched the last two satellites of the high resolution optical SuperView constellation. In addition, some of the key larger satellites going into orbit this year include:

  • ESA’s Sentinel-3B and its Aeolus wind mission.
  • NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) and the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2).
  • Japan’s Advanced Satellite with New system Architecture for Observation (ASNARO 2) which is x-band SAR radar satellite with a 1 m ground resolution.
  • NOAA’s GOES-S is the second of four upgraded weather observatories.

In addition, as we described last week, cubesats will continue to have regular launches. We are still a long way from the high watershed of EO data!

SaaS Will Become The Norm
The rise of the data buckets will encourage the Software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach to EO to become the norm. Companies will develop products and services and offer them to customers on a platform via the internet, rather than the historic bespoke application approach. For companies this will be a more effective way of using their resources and will allow them to better leverage products and services. For the customers, it will enable them greater use EO and geospatial data without the need for expert knowledge.

Pixalytics is due to launch its own Product Portal at the Data.Space 2018 conference at the end of this month.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI is becoming more and more important to EO. Part of this is the natural development of AI, however certain EO tasks are far more suited to AI. For example, change detection, identification of new artefacts in imagery, etc. These aspects have a base image and looking for differences, computers can do this much quicker than any human researcher. Although, it’s also true that humans can see artefacts much more easily than you can program a computer to identify them. Therefore, these AI applications are strongly dependent on training datasets created by humans.

However, things are now moving beyond these simple AI tasks and it’s becoming an integral part of EO products and services. For example, last year Microsoft launched their AI for Earth programme, support by a $50 m investment, which will deploy their cloud computing, AI and other technology to researchers around the world to help develop new solutions for the agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, and water challenges on the planet.

These are a snapshot of our view of the key trends. What do you think? Have we missed anything? Let us know.

Earth Observation’s Flying Start to 2018

Simulated NovaSAR-S data.

Earth Observation (EO) is taking off again in 2018 with a scheduled launch of 31 satellites next Friday, 12th January, from a single rocket by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The launch will be on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-40) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. ISRO has history of multiple launches, setting the world record in February 2017 with 104 satellites in one go.

The main payload next week will be Cartosat-2F, also known as Cartosat-2ER. It is the next satellite in a cartographic constellation which focuses on land observation. It carries two instruments, a high resolution multi-spectral imager and a panchromatic camera. It’s data is intended to be used in urban and rural applications, coastal land use, regulation and utility management.

At Pixalytics we’re particularly excited about the Carbonite-2 cubesat built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) which is on this launch. .

Carbonite-2 is a prototype mission to demonstrate the ability to acquire colour video images from space. It has been developed by Earth-i and SSTL, and carries an imaging system capable of delivering images with a spatial resolution of 1 m and colour video clips with a swath width of 5 km. Earth-i have already ordered five satellites from SSTL, as the first element of a constellation that will provide colour video and still imagery for the globe enabling the moving objects such as cars, ships or aircraft to be filmed. These satellites are planned for launch in 2019.

However, this isn’t the only cubesat with an EO interest on next week’s launch. In addition, there are:

  • KAUSAT 5 (Korea Aviation University Satellite) will observe the Earth using an infrared camera and measure the amount of radiation from its Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
  • Parikshit is a student satellite project from the Manipal Institute of Technology in India that carries a thermal infrared camera, using 7.5-13.5 µm wavelengths, and will be used to monitor urban heat islands, sea surface temperature and the thermal distribution of clouds around the Indian subcontinent.
  • Landmapper-BC3, a commercial satellite from Astro Digital in the USA to provide multispectral imagery at 22 m spatial resolution with a swath width of 220 km
  • ICEYE-X1 is a SAR microsatellite from the Finnish company ICEYE which is designed to provide near real-time SAR imagery using the S-Band. ICEYE is a recent start-up company who have raised $17 m in venture capital funding in the last few years. They hope to have a global imaging constellation by the end of 2020.

Amongst the remaining cubesats, there are a couple of really intriguing ones:

  • CNUSail 1 (Chungnam National University Sail) is a solar sail experiment from Chungnam National University in South Korea. It aims to successfully deploy a solar sail in LEO and then to de-orbit using the sail membrane as a drag-sail. There has been a lot of discussion around solar sails from propulsion systems through to mechanisms to clear space debris, so it will be fascinating to see the outcome.
  • IRVINE01 is the culmination of a STEM project started in 1999 in six public high schools in Irvine, California, which has given students the experience of building, testing and launching a cubesat to inspire the next generation of space scientists. This is a fantastic project!

We’re also really excited about the launch of the NovaSAR-S cubesat, which was also originally planned to be on this launch (as reflected in the first version of this blog). It is going to be launched later this year. NovaSAR-S, also built by SSTL, is of particular interested to Pixalytics as we’ve previously been involved in a project to simulate NovaSAR-S data and so we’re excited to see what the actual data looks like. NovaSAR-S is a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mission using the S-Band, which will operate in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 580 km. It has four imaging modes:

  • ScanSAR mode with a swath width of 100 km at 20 m spatial resolution.
  • Maritime mode with a swath width of > 400 km and a spatial resolution of 6 m across the track and 13.7m along the track.
  • Stripmap mode with a swath width of 15-20 km and a spatial resolution of 6 m.
  • ScanSAR wide mode with a swath width of 140km and a spatial resolution of 30 m.

The data will be used for applications including flooding, disaster monitoring, forestry, ship tracking, oil spill, land cover use and classification, crop monitoring and ice monitoring. We’ve going to keep an eye out for its launch!

This is just the start of 2018, and we hope it’s piqued your interest in EO as it’s going to be an exciting year!

Have you read the top Pixalytics blogs of 2017?

World Cloud showing top 100 words from Pixalytics 2017 blogs

In our final blog of the year, we’re looking back at our most popular posts of the last twelve months. Have you read them all?

Of the top ten most read blogs, nine were actually written in previous years. These were:

You’ll notice that this list is dominated by our annual reviews of the number of satellites, and Earth observation satellites, orbiting the Earth. It often surprises us to see where these blogs are quoted and we’ve been included in articles on websites for Time Magazine, Fortune Magazine and the New Statesman to name a few!

So despite only being published in November this year coming in as the fourth most popular blog of the year was, unsurprisingly:

For posts published in 2017, the other nine most popular were:

2017 has been a really successful one for our website. The number of the views for the year is up by 75%, whilst the number of unique visitors has increased by 92%!

Whilst hard work, we do enjoy writing our weekly blog – although staring at a blank screen on a Wednesday morning without any idea of what we’ll publish a few hours later can be daunting!

We’re always delighted at meetings and conferences when people come up and say they read the blog. It’s nice to know that we’re read both within our community, as well as making a small contribution to informing and educating people outside the industry.

Thanks for reading this year, and we hope we can catch your eye again next year.

We’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a very successful 2018!

Unintended Consequences of Energy Saving

Black Marble 2016: Composite global map created from data acquired by VIIRS in 2016. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Last month a report in Science Advances got a lot of publicity as it described the increase in global light pollution following research using satellite data. Even more interesting was the fact that one of the key drivers, although not the only one, was the switch to LED lights which have mainly being bought in due to their increased energy efficiency.

Recently there has been a lot of night-time imagery released as photographs taken from the International Space Station, and we’ve used them in our blogs. However, night time imagery has also been collected from the uncalibrated Operational Linescan System (OLS) on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites for a number of years. This was followed by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) research mission in 2011 that carries the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) which had a planned life expectancy of around five years, however it is still in orbit and continues to collect data. Much more recently, on the 18th November 2017, a second VIIRS instrument was launched aboard the NOAA-20 satellite (previously called JPSS-1).

The role of LED lights in the increase in light pollution was described in detail in the paper ‘Artificially lit surface of Earth at night increasing in radiance and extent’ by Kyba et al which was published on the 22nd November 2017. The paper was based on satellite data collected between 2012 and 2016 from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite and one of the key drivers behind the new research is that VIIRS offered the first calibrated and georeferenced night time radiance global dataset. Within the 22 spectral bands the instrument measures is a day/night panchromatic band (DNB). This band has a 750 m spatial resolution and operates on a whiskbroom approach with a swath of approximately 3,000 km which means it provides global coverage twice a day, visiting every location at 1:30 pm and 1:30 am (local time).

The team from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences who did the research concluded that outdoor light pollution has increased by 11% over 5 years. However, for us, the really interesting part was that new LED lights are linked to this increase in light pollution.

Over the last decade within the UK, a lot of local Councils have switched to using LED streetlights mainly due to the energy, and associated cost, savings. However, there was also a message that this would reduce light pollution as they would direct light downwards and reduce nightglow. This is coupled with the fact that businesses and consumers have also been pushed to move towards this type of light for the same reasons. This was brought home to us recently as a firm opposite our home installed new outside LED lights. It has made a significant different to the amount of light in our room and even in the middle of the night it is never completely black.

What the research team found by comparing VIIRS images from 2012 and 2016 was that:

  • The lower cost of LED lights has actually led to more lights going up, mainly on the outskirts of towns and cities. A 2010 paper by Tsao et al published in Physics Today indicated that we tend to purchase as much artificial light as possible for around 0.7% of GDP and so as lighting becomes cheaper, the quantity increases.
  • Flat composite global map created from data acquired by VIIRS in 2016. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA’s Earth Observatory.

    There has been a shift in the spectra of artificial light within cities from the yellow/orange of the old streetlights to the white of LED’s.

  • The majority of countries of the world had seen an increase in light pollution. Although, perhaps surprisingly some of the world’s brightest nations such the US, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy had stayed stable; which may suggest there is a point of saturation of outdoor lighting. The only countries that had less light pollution were areas of conflict or whether there was issue with the data, such as Australia where there were significant wildfires when the first data was collected.

Light pollution has a negative impact on flora and fauna, particularly nocturnal wildlife, and there is increasing evidence that it is also negative for humans. This is an example of why we have to be so careful with the concept of cause and effect. Decisions made for improved energy efficiency look to have had unintended consequences for light pollution.

Earth observation satellites in space in 2017?

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

Earth Observation (EO) satellites currently account for just over a third of all the operational satellites orbiting the Earth. As we described two weeks ago, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists database there were 1 738 operational satellites at the end of August 2017, and 620 of these have a main purpose of either EO or Earth Science.

This represents a massive 66% increase in the number of EO satellites from our 2016 update, and the percentage of overall active satellites is also up from one quarter. These figures demonstrate, once again, that EO is a growing industry.

What do Earth observation satellites do?
Looking more closely at what EO satellites actually do demonstrates that despite increases in satellite numbers in almost all categories, it’s clearly growth in optical imaging which is the behind this significant increase. The purposes of active EO satellites in 2017 are:

  • Optical Imaging: 327 satellites representing a 98% increase on last year
  • Radar imaging: 45 satellites, a 32% increase on last year
  • Infrared imaging: 7 satellites, no change to last year
  • Meteorology: 64 satellites, a 73% increase on last year
  • Earth Science: 60 satellites, a 13% increase on last year
  • Electronic intelligence: 50 satellites, a 6% increase on last year
  • 16 satellites with other purposes, a 133% increase on last year
  • 51 satellites simply list EO as their purpose, a 100% increase on last year

Who controls Earth observation satellites?
Despite the huge increase in EO satellites, the number of countries who control them has not seen the same growth. This year there are 39 different countries listed with EO satellites, an increase of only 15% on last year. In addition, there are satellites run by multinational agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA).

The USA leads the way controlling over half the EO satellites, although this is largely due to Planet who account for 30% on their own! Following USA is China with 14.4%, and then come India, Japan and Russia who each have over 3%.

The USA is followed by China with about 20%, and Japan and Russia come next with around 5% each. The UK is only listed as controller on 4 satellites all related to the DMC constellation, although we are also involved in the ESA satellites.

Size of Earth observation satellites
It’s interesting to look out the size breakdown of these satellites which shows the development of the small satellite. For this breakdown, we’ve classed satellites into four groups:

  • Large satellites with a launch mass of over 500kg
  • Small satellites with a launch mass between 100 and 500 kg.
  • Microsats with a launch mass between 10 and 100 kg.
  • Nanosats/Cubesats with a launch mass below 10 kg.

For the current active EO satellites there are:

  • 186 large satellites equating to 30.00%
  • 74 small satellites equating to 7.26%
  • 100 microsats equating to 16.13%
  • 215 Nanosats/Cubesats equating to 34.68%
  • The remaining 45 satellites do not have a launch mass specified.

Who uses the Earth observation satellites?

There has also been significant movement in the breakdown of EO satellites users since 2016. The influence of small commercial satellites undertaking optical imaging is again apparent. In 2017 the main users for EO were:

  • Commercial users with 44.68% of satellites (up from 21% in 2016)
  • Government users with 30.81% (down from 44% in 2016)
  • Military users with 19.35% (down from 30% in 2016)
  • Civil users with 5.16% (approximately the same as in 2016)

It should be noted that some of these satellites have multiple users.

Orbits of Earth observation satellites
In terms of altitude, unsurprisingly the vast majority, 92.25%, of EO satellites are in low earth orbits, 6.45% are in geostationary orbits and 1.3% are in an elliptical orbits.
There is a much greater variation in type of orbits:

  • 415 in a sun-synchronous orbit
  • 125 in a non-polar inclined orbit
  • 17 in a polar orbit
  • 8 in an equatorial orbit
  • 5 in an elliptical orbit
  • 5 in a Molniya orbit (highly eccentric elliptical orbits of approximately 12 hours)
  • 45 satellites do not have a type of orbit listed

Few interesting facts about active Earth observation satellites

  • Oldest active EO satellite is the Brazilian SCD-1 Meteorology/Earth Science satellite.
  • Valentine’s Day (14th February) 2017 saw Planet launch its Flock 3P meaning that 88 active EO satellites were launched on that day.
  • Most popular launch site is Satish Dhawan Space Centre operated by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who have put 169 into space.
  • ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle is also the most popular launch vehicle with 114 satellites.
  • The EO satellite furthest away from the Earth is the USA’s Electronic Intelligence satellite Trumpet 3 which has an apogee of 38 740 km.

What’s next?
It’s not clear whether the rapid growth in the number of EO satellites will continue into 2018. Planet, one of the key drivers, announced earlier this month that they had successfully completed their objective to image the globe’s entire landmass every day – which is a massive achievement!

That’s not say that Planet won’t push on further with new ideas and technologies, and other companies may move into that space too. China launched a number of EO satellites last weekend and there are already a number of interesting satellites planned for launch between now and the middle of 2018 including, Cartosat-2ER, NovaSAR-S, GOES-S and Sentinel-3B to name a few. .

One thing is for certain, there is a lot collected EO data out there, and it is increasing by the day!

To TEDx Speaking and Beyond!

Back in April I received an invitation to speak at the ‘One Step Beyond’ TEDx event organised at the National Space Centre in Leicester, with my focus on the Blue Economy and Earth Observation (EO).

We’ve been to a few TEDx events in the past and they’ve always been great, and so I was excited to have the opportunity to join this community. Normally, I’m pretty relaxed about public speaking. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to say, but don’t assemble my slides until a couple of days beforehand. This approach has developed in part because I used to lecture – where I got used to talking for a while with a few slides – but also because I always like to take some inspiration from the overall mood of the event I’m talking at. This can be through hearing other speakers, attending workshops or even just walking around the local area.

TEDx, however, was different. There was a need to have the talk ready early for previewing and feedback, alongside producing stunning visuals and having a key single message. So, for a change, I started with a storyboard.

My key idea was to get across the sense of wonder I and many other scientists share in observing the oceans from space, whilst also emphasising that anyone can get involved in protecting this natural resource. I echoed the event title by calling my talk “Beyond the blue ocean” as many people think of the ocean as just a blue waterbody. However, especially from space, we can see the beauty, and complexity, of colour variations influenced by the microscopic life and substances dissolved and suspended within it.

I began with an with an image called the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that was taken by Voyager 1 at a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and then went with well-known ‘Blue Marble’ image before zooming into what we see from more conventional EO satellites. I also wanted to take the audience beyond just optical wavelengths and so displayed microwave imagery from Sentinel-1 that’s at a similar spatial resolution to my processed 15 m resolution Sentinel-2 data that was also shown.

Dr Samantha Lavender speaking at the One Step Beyond TEDx event in Leicester. Photo courtesy of TEDxLeicester

The satellite imagery included features such as wind farms, boats and phytoplankton blooms I intended to discuss. However, this didn’t quite to go to plan on my practice run through! The talk was in the planetarium at the National Space Centre, which meant the screen was absolutely huge – as you can see in the image to the right. However, with the lights on in the room the detail in the images was really difficult to see. The solution for the talk itself was to have the planetarium in darkness and myself picked out by two large spotlights, meaning that the image details were visible to the audience but I couldn’t see the audience myself.

The evening itself took place on the 21st September, and with almost two hundred in the audience I was up first. I was very happy with how it went and the people who spoke to me afterwards said they were inspired by what they’d seen. You can see for yourself, as the talk can be found here on the TEDx library. Let me know what you think!

I was followed by two other fantastic speakers who gave inspiring presentations and these are also up on the TEDx Library. Firstly, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Deputy Head of Polar Oceans team at British Antarctic Survey discussed “How to conduct a planetary health check”; and she was followed by Corentin Guillo, CEO and Founder of Bird.i, who spoke about “Space entrepreneurship, when thinking outside the box is not enough”.

The whole event was hugely enjoyable and the team at TEDx Leicester did an amazing job of organising it. It was good to talk to people after the event, and it was fantastic that seventy percent of the audience were aged between 16 and 18. We need to do much more of this type of outreach activities to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists. Of course, for me, the day also means that I can now add TEDx Speaker to my biography!