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.

Summary
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.

Big Data From Space

Last week I attended the 2017 Conference on Big Data from Space (BiDS’17) that was held in Toulouse, France. The conference was co-organised by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission (EC), and the European Union Satellite Centre (SatCen). It aimed to bring together people from multiple disciplines to stimulate the exploitation Earth Observation (EO) data collected in space.

The event started on Tuesday morning with keynotes from the various co-organising space organisations. Personally, I found the talk by Andreas Veispak, from the European Commission’s (EC) DG GROW department which is responsible for EU policy on the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs, particularly interesting. Andreas has a key involvement in the Copernicus and Galileo programmes and described the Copernicus missions as the first building block for creating an ecosystem, which has positioned Europe as a global EO power through its “full, free and open” data policy.

The current Sentinel satellite missions will provide data continuity until at least 2035 with huge amounts of data generated, e.g., when all the Sentinel satellite missions are operational over 10 petabytes of data per year will be produced. Sentinel data has already been a huge success with current users exceeding what was expected by a factor of 10 or 20 and every product has been downloaded at least 10 times. Now, the key challenge is to support these users by providing useful information alongside the data.

The ESA presentation by Nicolaus Hanowski continued the user focus by highlighting that there are currently over 100 000 registered Copernicus data hub users. Nicolaus went on to describe that within ESA success is now being measured by use of the data for societal needs, e.g., the sustainable development goals, rather than just the production of scientific data. Therefore, one of the current aims is reduce the need for downloading by having a mutualised underpinning structure, i.e. the Copernicus Data and Information Access Services (DIAS) that will become operational in the second quarter of 2018, which will allow users to run their computer code on the data without the need for downloading. The hope is that this will allow users to focus on what they can do with the data, rather than worrying around storing it!

Charles Macmillan from JRC described their EO Data and Processing Platform (JEODPP) which is a front end based around the Jupyter Notebook that allows users to ask questions using visualisations and narrative text, instead of just though direct programming. He also noted that increasingly the data needed for policy and decision making is held by private organisations rather than government bodies.

The Tuesday afternoon was busy as I chaired the session on Information Generation at Scale. We had around 100 people who heard some great talks on varied subjects such as mass processing of Sentinel & Landsat data for mapping human settlements, 35 years of AVHRR data and large scale flood frequency maps using SAR data.

‘Application Of Earth Observation To A Ugandan Drought And Flood Mitigation Service’ poster

I presented a poster at the Wednesday evening session, titled “Application Of Earth Observation To A Ugandan Drought And Flood Mitigation Service”. We’re part of a consortium working on this project which is funded via the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme. It’s focus is on providing underpinning infrastructure for the Ugandan government so that end users, such as farmers, can benefit from more timely and accurate information – delivered through a combination of EO, modelling and ground-based measurements.

It was interesting to hear Grega Milcinski from Sinergise discuss a similar approach to users from the lessons they learnt from building the Sentinel Hub. They separated the needs of science, business and end users. They’ve chosen not to target end users due to the challenges surrounding the localisation and customisation requirements of developing apps for end users around the world. Instead they’ve focussed on meeting the processing needs of scientific and business users to give them a solid foundation upon which they can then build end user applications. It was quite thought provoking to hear this, as we’re hoping to move towards targeting these end users in the near future!

There were some key technology themes that came of the presentations at the conference:

  • Jupyter notebooks were popular for frontend visualisation and data analytics, so users just need to know some basic python to handle large and complex datasets.
  • Making use of cloud computing using tools such as Docker and Apache Spark for running multiple instances of code with integrated parallel processing.
  • Raw data and processing on the fly: for both large datasets within browsers and by having the metadata stored so you can quickly query before committing to processing.
  • Analysis ready data in data cubes, i.e. the data has been processed to a level where remote sensing expertise isn’t so critical.

It was a great thought provoking conference. If you’d like to get more detail on what was presented then a book of extended abstracts is available here. The next event is planned for 19-21 February 2019 in Munich, Germany and I’d highly recommend it!

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
  • 14 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:

  • 904 large satellites equating to 52.01%
  • 178 small satellites equating to 10.24%
  • 145 microsats equating to 8.34%
  • 409 Nanosats/Cubesats equating to 23.53%
  • The remaining 102 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 19.45% (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
  • 234 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!

How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2017?

Satellites orbiting the Earth

Artist’s rendition of satellites orbiting the Earth – rottenman/123RF Stock Photo

This is our annual update on the satellites currently orbiting the Earth.

How many satellites are orbiting the Earth?
According to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are 4 635 satellites currently orbiting the planet; an increase of 8.91% compared to last year.

So far in 2017, UNOOSA has recorded 357 objects launched into space. This is almost 50% more than have ever previously occurred in a single year, and there are still a significant number planned during the rest of the year.

This increase is fuelled by small satellites and cubesats. New technology has significantly reduced the cost to design, build and launch these, and this has been accompanied with an increase in commercial providers becoming involved in the market. A report issued earlier this month by the Satellite Applications Catapult predicted that 1 300 of these satellites will be launched over the next three years. If you consider that just under 7,900 objects have been launched into space, this would equate to 16.5% of the total launches over the last 60 years!

How many of these orbiting satellites are working?
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) keeps a record of the operational satellites and you may be surprised to know that only 37.5% of the orbiting satellites are active, just 1 738 according to the August 2017 update.

This means that there are 2 897 pieces of junk metal hurtling around the Earth at high speed!

What are all these satellites doing?
According the UCS the main purposes for the operational satellites are:

  • Communications: 742 satellites
  • Earth observation: 596 satellites
  • Technology development/demonstration: 193 satellites
  • Navigation/Positioning: 108 satellites
  • Space observation: 66 satellites
  • Earth science: 24 satellites
  • Space science: 67 satellites
  • Space observation: 9 satellites

Although, it should be noted that some of the satellites have multiple purposes.We’ll examine the Earth observation category in more detail in a future blog.

What is Technology Development/Demonstration?
This is quite an intriguing purpose as it should give an idea of what is happening in the industry, and perhaps unsurprisingly the UCS data has little information on what these satellites are actually doing. However, some insights can be gained by looking at the operators of, and countries controlling, these satellites.

Looking at the uses for these satellites:

  • 33 have military uses with 80% of these being the USA, the rest from China, Russia and France.
  • 56 have government uses and most of these are operated by National Space Agencies, or associated bodies. China has 52% of these satellites, followed by USA.
  • 65 have Civil uses and these are mostly run by University’s or similar educational establishments.
  • 39 have Commercial uses.

There are 33 different countries operating technology development/demonstration satellites with the USA leading the way having 63, followed by China with 41 and Japan with 19. After this it is mostly just one or two satellites for each country.

Who uses the satellites?
The four categories of users in the previous section can also be reviewed for all satellites, such that:

  • 788 satellites are listed as having commercial uses
  • 461 with government uses
  • 360 with military user; and
  • 129 with civil uses

Although, it should be noted that almost 14% of the satellites are listed as having multiple uses.

Which countries have launched/operate satellites?
According to UNOOSA 70 countries have launched satellites, although this is slightly complicated by the fact that a number of satellites have also been launched by various institutions such as the European Space Agency.

Looking at the UCS database, there are 66 countries listed as currently operating satellites, which means around 25% – 33% of the world’s countries have eyes in space (depending on how you define a country/territory!) There is an interesting infographic on the UCS site showing the change in countries operating satellites between 1966 and 2016.

In terms of countries with the most satellites, the USA significantly leads the way with 803 satellites, almost four times as many as China who is next with 204 and followed by Russia with 142.

Interesting Facts!
Just a few of the interesting things we’ve pulled out of the UCS database:

  • The oldest active satellite is the Amsat-Oscar 7 communications satellite which was launched 43 years ago today! (15th November 1974)
  • Planet operates the largest number of satellites with their constellations accounting for 191 of current active satellites – although with Planet this could have gone up already! Second largest operator is Iridium Communications with 83 satellites.
  • 61.6% of operational satellites are in low-earth orbits (LEO), 30.6% in geostationary orbits, 5.6% in medium-earth orbits and 2.2% in elliptical orbits.
  • Of the LEO, 55.4% are sun-synchronous, 25.6% are non-polar inclined, 15.6% are polar, 1.9% are equatorial, 0.8% are elliptical and 0.1% are cislunar (and yes, we had to look that one up too!) The remainder did not specify an orbit type.

When you look up!
Next time you gaze up into the sky looking at that stars, think about the 4,500 or so hunks of metal twinkling up there too!

Looking To Earth Observation’s Future

Artist’s view of Sentinel-3. Image courtesy of ESA–Pierre Carril.

The future is very much the theme for Earth Observation (EO) in Europe this week.

One of the biggest potential impacts for the industry could come out of a meeting that took place yesterday, 7 November, in Tallinn, Estonia as part of European Space Week. It was a meeting between the European Union (EU) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to discuss the next steps for the Copernicus programme beyond 2020. This is important in terms of not only continuing the current Sentinel missions, but also expanding what is monitored. There are concerns over gaps in coverage for certain types of missions which Europe could help to fill.

As an EO SME we’re intrigued to see the outcomes of these discussions as they include a focus on how to leverage Copernicus data more actively within the private sector. According to a recent Industry Survey by the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC), there are just over 450 EO companies operating in Europe, and 66% of these are micro companies like Pixalytics – defined by having less than ten employees. This rises to 95% of all EO European companies if you include small businesses – with between 10 and 50 employees.

Therefore, if the EU/ESA is serious about developing the entrepreneurial usage of Copernicus data, it will be the small and micro companies that will make the difference. As these companies grow, they will need high skilled employees to support them.

Looking towards the next generation of EO scientists, the UK Space Agency announced seven new outreach projects this week inspire children to get involved in space specifically and more widely, to increase interest in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The seven projects are:

  1. Glasgow Science Festival: Get me into orbit!
  2. Triathlon Trust: Space to Earth view
  3. Mangorolla CIC: Space zones ‘I’m a Scientist’ and ‘I’m an Engineer’
  4. Institute for Research in Schools: MELT: Monitoring the Environment, Learning for Tomorrow
  5. The Design and Technology Association: Inspiring the next generation: design and technology in space
  6. European Space Education Resource Office-UK: James Webb Space Telescope: Design challenge
  7. Children’s Radio UK (Fun Kids): Deep Space High – UK Spaceports

There will be a total of £210,000 invested in these. We’re particularly excited to see the MELT project which will get students to use EO data to analyse what is happening at the two poles.

Each of these elements will help shape the EO industry in this country. With the UK committed to remaining within ESA, decisions on the future of the Copernicus programme will provide a strong strategic direction for both the space and EO industries in Europe. Delivering on that direction will require the next generation workforce who will come from the children studying STEM subjects now.

Both the strategic direction, and associated actions to fulfil those ambitions, are vital for future EO success.

5 Signs You Work In Earth Observation

Sentinel-2A image of UK south east coastline, acquired on 4th September 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Do you recognise yourself in any these five signs? if so, you’re definitely working in the Earth observation industry.

  1. You have a favourite satellite or instrument, or image search tool.
  2. When a satellite image appears on television, you tell everyone in the room which satellite/sensor it came from.
  3. You’ve got an irrational hatred for clouds (unless you’re working on clouds or using radar images).
  4. Anything space related happens and your family asks whether you’re involved with it, and thinks you know everyone who works at NASA or ESA.
  5. Your first reaction to seeing an interesting location isn’t that you should plan to go there. Instead, you wonder whether it would make a good satellite image.

We tick all of these signs at Pixalytics! Last week we suffered from number five when we saw a snippet from the season finale of the UK TV programme ‘Liar’. It wasn’t a programme we’d watched, but as we caught an atmospheric panning shot of the location, and only one thought when through our minds, ‘That would make a great satellite image!’

It was a stunning shot of a marshland with water interwoven between islands. Without knowing anything about the programme, we were expecting it to have been filmed in a far flung Nordic location. Following a bit of impromptu googling we were surprised to discover it was actually Tollesbury on the Essex coast in the UK. It also turns out that we were late to the party on the discovery of the programme and the location.

Sentinel-2A image of Mersea Island and surrounding area, acquired on 4th September 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

The image on the right shows Mersea Island, which has brown saltmarshes above it within the adjacent inlets of the Blackwater Estuary. To the left of the island is the village of Tollesbury and the Tollesbury marina, which is located within the saltmarshes. This area is the largest of the saltmarshes of Essex, but only the fifth largest of the UK. They play a key role in flood protection and can reduce the height of damaging waves in storm surge conditions by 20%. However, they are disappearing due to sea erosion that’s caused a sixty percent reduction in the last 20 years.

The image itself is a zoomed in pseudo-true-colour composite at 10 m spatial resolution using data acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 4th September 2017 – a surprisingly cloud free day for the UK. The full Sentinel-2 image can be seen at the top of the blog.

As often happens when we look in detail at satellite images, something catches our eye. This time it was the three bluish looking strips just above Mersea island. These are the 82,944 solar panels which make up Langenhoe Solar Farm, and have the capacity to generate 21.15 MW of solar power.

So how many of you recognise our signs of working in Earth observation? Any you think we’ve missed? Get in touch, let us know!