Inspiring the Next Generation of EO Scientists

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

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

Last week, whilst Europe’s Earth Observation (EO) community was focussed on the successful launch of Sentinel-5P, over in America Tuesday 10th October was Earth Observation Day!

This annual event is co-ordinated by AmericaView, a non-profit organisation, whose aim to advance the widespread use of remote sensing data and technology through education and outreach, workforce development, applied research, and technology transfer to the public and private sectors.

Earth Observation Day is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) event celebrating the Landsat mission and its forty-five year archive of imagery. Using satellite imagery provides valuable experience for children in maths and sciences, together with introducing subjects such as land cover, food production, hydrology, habitats, local climate and spatial thinking. The AmericaView website contains a wealth of EO materials available for teachers to use, from fun puzzles and games through to a variety of remote sensing tutorials. Even more impressive is that the event links schools to local scientists in remote sensing and geospatial technologies. These scientists provide support to teachers including giving talks, helping design lessons or being available to answer student’s questions.

This is a fantastic event by AmericaView, supporting by wonderful resources and remote sensing specialists. We first wrote about this three years ago, and thought the UK would benefit from something similar. We still do. The UK Space Agency recently had an opportunity for organisations interested in providing education and outreach activities to support EO, satellite launch programme or the James Webb Space Telescope. It will be interesting to see what the successful candidates come up with.

At Pixalytics we’re passionate about educating and inspiring the next generation of EO scientists. For example, we regularly support the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society’s Wavelength conference for students and early career scientists; and sponsored the Best Early-Career Researcher prize at this year’s GISRUK Conference. We’re also involved with two exciting events at Plymouth’s Marine Biological Association, a Young Marine Biologists (YMB) Summit for 12-18 year olds at the end of this month and their 2018 Postgraduate conference.

Why is this important?
The space industry, and the EO sector, is continuing to grow. According to Euroconsult’s ‘Satellites to Be Built & Launched by 2026 – I know this is another of the expensive reports we highlighted recently – there will be around 3,000 satellites with a mass above 50 kg launched in the next decade – of which around half are anticipated as being used for EO or communication purposes. This almost doubles the number of satellites launched in the last ten years and doesn’t include the increasing number of nano and cubesats going up.

Alongside the number of satellites, technological developments mean that the amount of EO data available is increasing almost exponentially. For example, earlier this month World View successfully completed multi-day flight of its Stratollite™ service, which uses high-altitude balloons coupled with the ability to steer within stratospheric winds. They can carry a variety of sensors, a mega-pixel camera was on the recent flight, offering an alternative vehicle for collecting EO data.

Therefore, we need a future EO workforce who are excited, and inspired, by the possibilities and who will take this data and do fantastic things with it.

To find that workforce we need to shout about our exciting industry and make sure everyone knows about the career opportunities available.

No Paraskevidekatriaphobia For Sentinel-5P!

Sentinel-5P carries the state-of-the-art Tropomi instrument. Image courtesy of ESA/ATG medialab.

On Friday the latest of the Sentinel satellites, Sentinel-5P, is due to be launched at 09.27 GMT from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia.

Friday is the 13th October, and within parts of the western world this is considered to be an unlucky date – although in Italy its Friday 17th which is unlucky and in some Spanish speaking countries it is Tuesday the 13th. Fear of Friday 13th is known as paraskevidekatriaphobia, although evidently it isn’t something Sentinel-5P worries about!

Sentinel-5 Precursor, to give the full title, is dedicated to monitoring our atmosphere. It will create maps of the various trace gases such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide alongside aerosols in our atmosphere. The mission will also support the monitoring of air pollution over cities, volcanic ash, stratospheric ozone and surface UV radiation.

An internal view of the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite. Image courtesy of ESA/ATG medialab.

The satellite itself is a hexagonal structure as can be seen in the image to the right. It has three solar wings which will be deployed once the polar sun-synchronous 824 km low earth orbit has been achieved. Sentinel-5P will be orbiting three and half minutes behind NOAA’s Suomi-NPP satellite which carries the Visible/Infrared Imager and Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). This synergy will allow the high resolution cloud mask from VIIRS to be used within the calculations for methane from Sentinel-5P.

Within the hexagonal body the main scientific instrument is the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (Tropomi). This is a push-broom imaging spectrometer covering a spectral range from ultraviolet and visible (270–495 nm), near infrared (675–775 nm) and shortwave infrared (2305–2385 nm). The spatial resolution of the instrument will be 7 km x 3.5 km. However, one of the exciting elements of this instrument is that it will have a swath width of 2600 km meaning it can map almost the entire planet every day. It will have full daily surface coverage of radiance and reflectance measurements for latitudes > 7° and < -7°, and better than 95 % coverage for other latitudes.

The key role of Sentinel-5P is to reduce the data gap between the end of the Envisat mission in May 2012 and the launch of Sentinel-5 in 2020. Sentinel-5, and Sentinel-4, will be instruments onboard meteorological satellites operated by Eumetsat and both will be used to monitor the atmosphere.

The timing of Sentinel-5 is interesting for those of within the UK given that almost three quarters of the funding from Copernicus comes from the European Union. By this time Brexit will have occurred and it is currently unclear how that will impact on our future involvement in this programme. This also applies to the work announced at the end of last month to look at an expansion of the Sentinel missions. Invitations to tender (ITT) are due to be issued in the near future, and given our previous blogs on potential limitations and issues, it will be interesting to see which UK companies bid, and whether they will be successful.

Sentinel-5P will help improve our understanding of the processes within the atmosphere which affect our climate, the air we breathe and ultimately the health of everyone on the planet.

Can You See The Great Wall of China From Space?

Area north of Beijing, China, showing the Great Wall of China running through the centre. Image acquired by Sentinel-2 on 27th June 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Dating back over two thousand three hundred years, the Great Wall of China winds its way from east to west across the northern part of the country. The current remains were built during Ming Dynasty and have a length of 8 851.8 km according to 2009 work by the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage and National Bureau of Surveying and Mapping Agency. However, if you take into account the different parts of the wall built by other dynasties, its length is almost twenty two thousand kilometres.

The average height of the wall is between six and seven metres, and its width is between four to five metres. This width would allow five horses, or ten men, to walk side by side. The sheer size of the structure has led people to believe that it could be seen from space. This was first described by William Stukeley in 1754, when he wrote in reference to Hadrian’s Wall that ‘This mighty wall of four score miles in length is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the Moon.’

Despite Stukeley’s personal opinion not having any scientific basis, it has been repeated many times since. By the time humans began to go into space, it was considered a fact. Unfortunately, astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin, Chris Hatfield and even China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, have all confirmed that the Great Wall is not visible from space by the naked eye. Even Pixalytics has got a little involved in this debate. Two years ago we wrote a blog saying that we couldn’t see the wall on Landsat imagery as the spatial resolution was not small enough to be able to distinguish it from its surroundings.

Anyone who is familiar with the QI television series on the BBC will know that they occasionally ask the same question in different shows and give different answers when new information comes to light. This time it’s our turn!

Last week Sam was a speaker at the TEDx One Step Beyond event at the National Space Centre in Leicester – you’ll hear more of that in a week or two. However, in exploring some imagery for the event we looked for the Great Wall of China within Sentinel-2 imagery. And guess what? We found it! In the image at the top, the Great Wall can be seen cutting down the centre from the top left.

Screenshot of SNAP showing area north of Beijing, China. Data acquired by Sentinel-2 on 27th June 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

It was difficult to spot. The first challenge was getting a cloud free image of northern China, and we only found one covering our area of interest north of Beijing! Despite Sentinel-2 having 10 m spatial resolution for its visible wavelengths, as noted above, the wall is generally narrower. This means it is difficult to see the actual wall itself, but it is possible to see its path on the image. This ability to see very small things from space by their influence on their surroundings is similar to how we are able to spot microscopic phytoplankton blooms. The image on the right is a screenshot from Sentinel Application Platform tool (SNAP) which shows the original Sentinel-2 image of China on the top left and the zoomed section identifying the wall.

So whilst the Great Wall of China might not be visible from space with the naked eye, it is visible from our artificial eyes in the skies, like Sentinel-2.

Brexit: Science & Space

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

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

Brexit currently dominates UK politics. Whilst it’s clear the UK is leaving the European Union (EU) in March 2019, the practical impact, and consequences, are still a confused fog hanging over everything. The UK Government Department for Exiting the European Union has been issuing position papers to set out how it sees the UK’s future arrangements with the EU.

Last week, the ‘Collaboration in science and innovation: a future partnership paper’ was issued. Given our company’s focus we were eager to see what was planned. Unfortunately, like a lot of the UK Government pronouncements on Brexit, it is high on rhetoric, but low on any helpful, or new, information or clarity.

It begins with a positive, but perhaps rather obvious, statement, stating that one of the UK’s core objectives is to ‘seek agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.’

Future Partnership with EU Principles
Key aspects of the UK’s ambition for the future partnership include:

  • Science & Innovation collaboration is not only maintained, but strengthened.
  • With its strong research community, the UK wants an ambitious agreement for continued research co-operation.
  • Government wants the UK to be a hub for international talent in research, and to welcome the brightest and best people from around the world.

The principles are followed by four particular areas the UK wants to discuss with the EU. Interestingly, it specifically outlines how non-EU countries currently participate in each of these areas, which are Research & Innovation Framework Programmes, Space Programmes, Nuclear R&D and Defence R&D.

Research & Innovation Framework Programmes
Horizon 2020 is highlighted as the UK ranks top across the EU in terms of contracts and participants in it. The Government confirms its commitment to underwriting any projects submitted whilst the UK is still an EU member.

Support for this programme is good, however with an end date of 2020 it is going to be equally important to be a strong partner of whatever research funding programme that is going to follow.

Space Programmes
As we have described before the European Space Agency is not an EU institution, and so is not impacted by Brexit – a fact reinforced by the paper. Three key EU, rather than ESA, led space programmes are highlighted:

  • Galileo Navigation and Positioning System – Issues here surround both the use of the system and its ongoing development. UK firms have been key suppliers for this work including Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), Qinetiq, CGI, Airbus and Scisys.
  • Copernicus – The Copernicus Earth Observation data is freely available to anyone in the world. The key element here is about being at the table to influence the direction. Although, the paper does refer to existing precedents for third party participation.
  • Space Surveillance and Tracking – this is a new programme.

The paper states that given the unique nature of space programmes, the ‘EU and UK should discuss all options for future cooperation including new arrangements.’

What Is Not Said
There are a lot of positive and welcome words here, but also a huge amount unsaid, for example:

  • Interconnectivity: Science and innovation happens when researchers work together, so the UK’s approach to the movement of people is fundamental. Will the brightest and best be allowed to come and work here, and will they want to?
  • Education: Education is fundamental to this area, yet it does not merit a single mention in the paper. New researchers and early career scientists benefit hugely from programmes such as Erasmus, will our involvement in these continue?
  • Financial Contribution: How much is the UK willing to pay to be part of science and innovation programmes? The paper notes any financial contribution will have to be weighed against other spending priorities. Not exactly hugely encouraging.
  • Contractual Issues: Part of the issue with Galileo is that the contracts specifically exclude non-EU countries from involvement.. Whilst, it is possible to see that the UK could negotiate use of Galileo, continued involvement as a supplier may be more difficult.

The UK wants dialogue with the EU on far-reaching science and innovation agreement. This ambition is to be applauded, but we are a very long way away from that point. We hope both parties are able to work together to get there.

Flip-Sides of Soil Moisture

Soil Moisture changes between 19th and 25th August around Houston, Texas due to rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using soil moisture data courtesy of JPL and the SMAP science team.

Soil moisture is an interesting measurement as it can be used to monitor two diametrically opposed conditions, namely floods and droughts. This was highlighted last week by maps produced from satellite data for the USA and Italy respectively. These caught our attention because soil moisture gets discussed on a daily basis in the office, due to its involvement in a project we’re working on in Uganda.

Soil moisture can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. For this blog we’re using soil moisture to describe the amount of water held in spaces between the soil in the top few centimetres of the ground. Data is collected by radar satellites which measure microwaves reflected or emitted by the Earth’s surface. The intensity of the signal depends on the amount of water in the soil, enabling a soil moisture content to be calculated.

You can’t have failed to notice the devastating floods that have occurred recently in South Asia – particularly India, Nepal and Bangladesh – and in the USA. The South Asia floods were caused by monsoon rains, whilst the floods in Texas emanated from Hurricane Harvey.

Soil moisture measurements can be used to show the change in soil saturation. NASA Earth Observatory produced the map at the top of the blogs shows the change in soil moisture between the 19th and 25th August around Houston, Texas. The data is based on measurements acquired by the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, which uses a radiometer to measure soil moisture in the top 5 centimetres of the ground with a spatial resolution of around 9 km. On the map itself the size of each of the hexagons shows how much the level of soil moisture changed and the colour represents how saturated the soil is.

These readings have identified that soil moisture levels got as high as 60% in the immediate aftermath of the rainfall, partly due to the ferocity of the rain, which prevented the water from seeping down into the soil and so it instead remained at the surface.

Soil moisture in Italy during early August 2017. The data were compiled by ESA’s Soil Moisture CCI project. Data couresy of ESA. Copyright: C3S/ECMWF/TU Wien/VanderSat/EODC/AWST/Soil Moisture CCI

By contrast, Italy has been suffering a summer of drought and hot days. This year parts of the country have not seen rain for months and the temperature has regularly topped one hundred degrees Fahrenheit – Rome, which has seventy percent less rainfall than normal, is planning to reduce water pressure at night for conservation efforts.

This has obviously caused an impact on the ground, and again a soil moisture map has been produced which demonstrates this. This time the data was come from the ESA’s Soil Moisture Climate Change Initiative project using soil moisture data from a variety of satellite instruments. The dataset was developed by the Vienna University of Technology with the Dutch company VanderSat B.V.

The map shows the soil moisture levels in Italy from the early part of last month, with the more red the areas, the lower the soil moisture content.

Soil moisture is a fascinating measurement that can provide insights into ground conditions whether the rain is falling a little or a lot.

It plays an important role in the development of weather patterns and the production of precipitation, and is crucial to understanding both the water and carbon cycles that impact our weather and climate.

Algae Starting To Bloom

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

Algae have been making the headlines in the last few weeks, which is definitely a rarely used phrase!

Firstly, the Lake Erie freshwater algal bloom has begun in the western end of the lake near Toledo. This is something that is becoming an almost annual event and last year it interrupted the water supply for a few days for around 400,000 residents in the local area.

An algae bloom refers to a high concentration of micro algae, known as phytoplankton, in a body of water. Blooms can grow quickly in nutrient rich waters and potentially have toxic effects. Although a lot of algae is harmless, the toxic varieties can cause rashes, nausea or skin irritation if you were to swim in it, it can also contaminate drinking water and can enter the food chain through shellfish as they filter large quantities of water.

Lake Erie is fourth largest of the great lakes on the US/Canadian border by surface area, measuring around 25,700 square km, although it’s also the shallowest and at 484 cubic km has the smallest water volume. Due to its southern position it is the warmest of the great lakes, something which may be factor in creation of nutrient rich waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produce both an annual forecast and a twice weekly Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin during the bloom season which lasts until late September. The forecast reflects the expected biomass of the bloom, but not its toxicity, and this year’s forecast was 7.5 on a scale to 10, the largest recent blooms in 2011 and 2015 both hit the top of the scale. Interestingly, this year NOAA will start incorporating Sentinel-3 data into the programme.

Western end of Lake Erie acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data

Despite the phytoplankton within algae blooms being only 1,000th of a millimetre in size, the large numbers enable them to be seen from space. The image to the left is a Sentinel-2 image, acquired on the 3rd August, of the western side of the lake where you can see the green swirls of the algal bloom, although there are also interesting aircraft contrails visible in the image. The image at the start of the top of the blog is zoomed in to the city of Monroe and the Detroit River flow into the lake and the algal bloom is more prominent.

Landsat 8 acquired this image of the northwest coast of Norway on the 23rd July 2017,. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.

It’s not just Lake Erie where algal blooms have been spotted recently:

  • The Chautauqua Lake and Findley Lake, which are both just south of Lake Erie, have reported algal blooms this month.
  • NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite captured the image on the right, a bloom off the northwest coast of Norway on the 23rd July. It is noted that blooms at this latitude are in part due to the sunlight of long summer days.
  • The MODIS instrument onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired the stunning image below of the Caspian Sea on the 3rd August.

Image of the Caspian Sea, acquired on 3rd August 2017, by MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image Courtesy of NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.

Finally as reported by the BBC, an article in Nature this week proposes that it was a takeover by ocean algae 650 million years ago which essentially kick started life on Earth as we know it.

So remember, they may be small, but algae can pack a punch!

Two New Earth Observation Satellites Launched

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

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

Two new Earth observation satellites were launched last week from European Space Centre in Kourou in French Guyana, although you may only get to see the data from one. Venµs and OPTSAT-3000 were put into sun synchronous orbits by Arianespace via its Vega launch vehicle on the 1st August. Both satellites were built by Israel’s state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and carry instruments from Israel’s Elbit Systems.

Venµs, or to give its full title of Vegetation and Environment monitoring on a New MicroSatellite, is a joint scientific collaboration between the Israeli Space Agency (ISA) and France’s CNES space agency.

Venµs is focussed on environmental monitoring including climate, soil and topography. Its aim is to help improve the techniques and accuracy of global models, with a particular emphasis on understanding how environmental and human factors influence plant health. The satellite is equipped with the VENµS Superspectral Camera (VSSC) that uses 12 narrow spectral bands in the Visible Near Infrared (VNIR) spectrum – ranging from 420nm wavelength up to 910 nm wavelength – to capture 12 simultaneous overlapping high resolution images which are then combined into a single image. The camera uses a pushbroom collection technique and has a spatial resolution of 5.3m and a swath size of 27.56 km.

Venµs won’t have full global coverage; instead there are 110 areas of interest around the world that includes forests, croplands and nature reserves. With a two day revisit time, during which time it completes 29 orbits of the planet. This means every thirtieth image will be collected over the same place, at the same time and with the same angle. This will provide high resolution imagery more frequently than is currently available from existing EO satellites. The consistency of the place, time and angle will help researchers better assess fine-scale changes on the land to improve our understanding of the:

  • State of the soil,
  • vegetation growth,
  • detection of spreading disease or contamination,
  • snow cover and glacial movements; and
  • sediment movement in coastal estuaries

A specific software algorithm has been developed for the mission to work with the different wavelengths to remove clouds and aerosols from the satellite’s imagery, giving clear images of the planet irrespective of atmospheric conditions.

The second satellite launched was the OPTSAT-3000 which is an Italian controlled optical surveillance satellite, which will operate in conjunction with the COSMO-SkyMed radar satellites giving Italy’s Ministry of Defence independent autonomous national Earth observation capability across optical and radar imagery.

This is a military satellite and so some of the details are difficult to verify. As mentioned earlier the instrument was made by Elbit systems, and the camera used usually offers a spatial resolution of around 0.5 m. However, it has been reported that the resolution will be much closer to 0.3m because the satellite is in a very low earth orbit of a 450 km.

OPTSAT-3000 will collect high resolution imaging of the Earth, it’s not clear at this stage whether any of the imagery will be made available for commercial/scientific use or purchase, although it is worth noting that COSMOS-SkyMed images are sold.

Two more Earth observation satellites launched shows that our industry keeps on moving forward! We’re really interested, and in OPTSAT’s case hopeful, to see the imagery they produce.

Supporting Soil Fertility From Space

Sentinel-2 pseudo-true colour composite from 2016 with a Kompsat-3 Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) product from 2015 inset. Sentinel data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Last Tuesday I was at the academic launch event for the Tru-Nject project at Cranfield University. Despite the event’s title, it was in fact an end of project meeting. Pixalytics has been involved in the project since July 2015, when we agreed to source and process high resolution satellite Earth Observation (EO) imagery for them.

The Tru-Nject project is funded via Innovate UK. It’s official title is ‘Tru-Nject: Proximal soil sensing based variable rate application of subsurface fertiliser injection in vegetable/ combinable crops’. The focus is on modelling soil fertility within fields, to enable fertiliser to be applied in varying amounts using point-source injection technology which reduces the nitrogen loss to the atmosphere when compared with spreading fertiliser on the soil surface.

To do this the project created soil fertility maps from a combination of EO products, physical sampling and proximal soil sensing – where approximately 15 000 georeferenced hyperspectral spectra are collected using an instrument connected to a tractor. These fertility maps are then interpreted by an agronomist, who decides on the relative application of fertiliser.

Initial results have shown that applying increased fertiliser to areas of low fertility improves overall yield when compared to applying an equal amount of fertiliser everywhere, or applying more fertiliser to high yield areas.

Pixalytics involvement in the work focussed on acquiring and processing, historical, and new, sub 5 metre optical satellite imagery for two fields, near Hull and York. We have primarily acquired data from the Kompsat satellites operated by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), supplemented with WorldView data from DigitalGlobe. Once we’d acquired the imagery, we processed it to:

  • remove the effects of the atmosphere, termed atmospheric correction, and then
  • converted them to maps of vegetation greenness

The new imagery needed to coincide with a particular stage of crop growth, which meant the satellite data acquisition period was narrow. This led to a pleasant surprise for Dave George, Tru-Nject Project Manager, who said, “I never believed I’d get to tell a satellite what to do.’ To ensure that we collected data on specific days we did task the Kompsat satellites each year.

Whilst we were quite successful with the tasking the combination of this being the UK, and the fact that the fields were relatively small, meant that some of the images were partly affected by cloud. Where this occurred we gap-filled with Copernicus Sentinel-2 data, it has coarser spatial resolution (15m), but more regular acquisitions.

In addition, we also needed to undertake vicarious adjustment to ensure that we produced consistent products over time whilst the data came from different sensors with different specifications. As we cannot go to the satellite to measure its calibration, vicarious adjustment is a technique which uses ground measurements and algorithms to not only cross-calibrate the data, but also adjusts for errors in the atmospheric correction.

An example of the work is at the top, which shows a Sentinel-2 pseudo-true colour composite from 2016 with a Kompsat-3 Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) product from 2015 inset. The greener the NDVI product the more green the vegetation is, although the two datasets were collected in different years so the planting within the field varies.

We’ve really enjoyed working with Stockbridge Technology Centre Ltd (STC), Manterra Ltd, and Cranfield University, who were the partners in the project. Up until last week all the work was done via telephone and email, and so it was great to finally meet them in-person, hear about the successful project and discuss ideas for the future.

If no-one is there when an iceberg is born, does anyone see it?

Larsen C ice Shelf including A68 iceberg. Image acquired by MODIS Aqua satellite on 12th July 2017. Image courtesy of NASA.

The titular paraphrasing of the famous falling tree in the forest riddle was well and truly answered this week, and shows just how far satellite remote sensing has come in recent years.

Last week sometime between Monday 10th July and Wednesday 12th July 2017, a huge iceberg was created by splitting off the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. It is one of the biggest icebergs every recorded according to scientists from Project MIDAS, a UK-based Antarctic research project, who estimate its area of be 5,800 sq km and to have a weight of more a trillion tonnes. It has reduced the Larsen C ice Shelf by more than twelve percent.

The iceberg has been named A68, which is a pretty boring name for such a huge iceberg. However, icebergs are named by the US National Ice Centre and the letter comes from where the iceberg was originally sited – in this case the A represents area zero degrees to ninety degrees west covering the Bellingshausen and Weddell Seas. The number is simply the order that they are discovered, which I assume means there have been 67 previous icebergs!

After satisfying my curiosity on the iceberg names, the other element that caught our interest was the host of Earth observation satellites that captured images of either the creation, or the newly birthed, iceberg. The ones we’ve spotted so far, although there may be others, are:

  • ESA’s Sentinel-1 has been monitoring the area for the last year as an iceberg splitting from Larsen C was expected. Sentinel-1’s SAR imagery has been crucial to this monitoring as the winter clouds and polar darkness would have made optical imagery difficult to regularly collect.
  • Whilst Sentinel-1 was monitoring the area, it was actually NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument onboard the Aqua satellite which confirmed the ‘birth’ on the 12th July with a false colour image at 1 km spatial resolution using band 31 which measures infrared signals. This image is at the top of the blog and the dark blue shows where the surface is warmest and lighter blue indicates a cooler surface. The new iceberg can be seen in the centre of the image.
  • Longwave infrared imagery was also captured by the NOAA/NASA Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite on July 13th.
  • Similarly, NASA also reported that Landsat 8 captured a false-colour image from its Thermal Infrared Sensor on the 12th July showing the relative warmth or coolness of the Larsen C ice shelf – with the area around the new iceberg being the warmest giving an indication of the energy involved in its creation.
  • Finally, Sentinel-3A has also got in on the thermal infrared measurement using the bands of its Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR).
  • ESA’s Cryosat has been used to calculate the size of iceberg by using its Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) which measured height of the iceberg out of the water. Using this data, it has been estimated that the iceberg contains around 1.155 cubic km of ice.
  • The only optical imagery we’ve seen so far is from the DEMIOS1 satellite which is owned by Deimos Imaging, an UrtheCast company. This is from the 14th July and revealed that the giant iceberg was already breaking up into smaller pieces.

It’s clear this is a huge iceberg, so huge in fact that most news agencies don’t think that readers can comprehend its vastness, and to help they give a comparison. Some of the ones I came across to explain its vastness were:

  • Size of the US State of Delaware
  • Twice the size of Luxembourg
  • Four times the size of greater London
  • Quarter of the size of Wales – UK people will know that Wales is almost an unofficial unit of size measurement in this country!
  • Has the volume of Lake Michigan
  • Has the twice the volume of Lake Erie
  • Has the volume of the 463 million Olympic-sized swimming pools; and
  • My favourite compares its size to the A68 road in the UK, which runs from Darlington to Edinburgh.

This event shows how satellites are monitoring the planet, and the different ways we can see the world changing.

Locusts & Monkeys

Soil moisture data from the SMOS satellite and the MODIS instrument acquired between July and October 2016 were used by isardSAT and CIRAD to create this map showing areas with favourable locust swarming conditions (in red) during the November 2016 outbreak. Data courtesy of ESA. Copyright : CIRAD, SMELLS consortium.

Spatial resolution is a key characteristic in remote sensing, as we’ve previously discussed. Often the view is that you need an object to be significantly larger than the resolution to be able to see it on an image. However, this is not always the case as often satellites can identify indicators of objects that are much smaller.

We’ve previously written about satellites identifying phytoplankton in algal blooms, and recently two interesting reports have described how satellites are being used to determine the presence of locusts and monkeys!


Desert locusts are a type of grasshopper, and whilst individually they are harmless as a swarm they can cause huge damage to populations in their paths. Between 2003 and 2005 a swarm in West Africa affected eight million people, with reported losses of 100% for cereals, 90% for legumes and 85% for pasture.

Swarms occur when certain conditions are present; namely a drought, followed by rain and vegetation growth. ESA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have being working together to determine if data from the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite can be used to forecast these conditions. SMOS carries a Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis (MIRAS) instrument – a 2D interferometric L-band radiometer with 69 antenna receivers distributed on a Y-shaped deployable antenna array. It observes the ‘brightness temperature’ of the Earth, which indicates the radiation emitted from planet’s surface. It has a temporal resolution of three days and a spatial resolution of around 50 km.

By combining the SMOS soil moisture observations with data from NASA’s MODIS instrument, the team were able to downscale SMOS to 1km spatial resolution and then use this data to create maps. This approach then predicted favourable locust swarming conditions approximately 70 days ahead of the November 2016 outbreak in Mauritania, giving the potential for an early warning system.

This is interesting for us as we’re currently using soil moisture data in a project to provide an early warning system for droughts and floods.


Earlier this month the paper, ‘Connecting Earth Observation to High-Throughput Biodiversity Data’, was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. It describes the work of scientists from the Universities of Leicester and East Anglia who have used satellite data to help identify monkey populations that have declined through hunting.

The team have used a variety of technologies and techniques to pull together indicators of monkey distribution, including:

  • Earth observation data to map roads and human settlements.
  • Automated recordings of animal sounds to determine what species are in the area.
  • Mosquitos have been caught and analysed to determine what they have been feeding on.

Combining these various datasets provides a huge amount of information, and can be used to identify areas where monkey populations are vulnerable.

These projects demonstrate an interesting capability of satellites, which is not always recognised and understood. By using satellites to monitor certain aspects of the planet, the data can be used to infer things happening on a much smaller scale than individual pixels.