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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion
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.

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.

Brexit Biting for UK Space Industry

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

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

UK companies involved in European Commission space programmes face an uncertain future according to media reports over the last week. The Financial Times reported that the European Commission wanted two key clauses in the contracts for work on the next part of the €10 bn Galileo Satellite Navigation System. These would allow the Commission to:

  • Cancel the contracts, without penalty, of any supplier who is no longer based in an European Union (EU) member state; and then
  • Charge that supplier all costs associated with finding their replacements.

Clearly, this poses a huge risk to UK companies given the fact that the UK has indicated its intention to leave the EU in 2019 by triggering Article 50. We wrote about the potential impacts of Brexit last year, and whilst we did pick up concerns over Galileo we didn’t see this coming!

Should the UK Space Industry be concerned?
Yes!

Despite reports to the contrary, this does not mean we are leaving the European Space Agency (ESA). We are very much remaining part of ESA, something that was confirmed at the ministerial in December. This solely relates to programmes owned, and funded, by the European Union (EU). However, it is concerning for two key reasons:

  • Anyone who has tried to negotiate contract terms with large governmental organisations will be aware that it tends to be a binary take it or leave it scenario. Therefore, if these clauses are in the contract, then it is highly likely companies will have to sign up to them to get the work.
  • It may not just be Galileo, the Copernicus Programme could be next. Copernicus is also an EU programme, and therefore it has to be a possibility that they may apply the same clauses to future Copernicus tenders. Galileo isn’t something Pixalytics is involved with, but if this was extended to Copernicus we’d be potentially impacted and would need to make choices.

What Can UK Companies Do?
The options are limited:

  • Bid anyway! Accept the potential financial risk, or hope that it will get resolved within the various Brexit negotiations. Given the size of these contracts, it will be a brave CEO who goes down this route.
  • Not bidding for any Galileo contract is probably the financially prudent option, but equally it removes a significant revenue stream.
  • Move to another European Country. I think there will be a number of companies who will be looking at moving some, or all, of their operations to another EU member state.

Any Causes For Optimism?
Not really, but there are tiny strands of hope.

  • Security – A key issue with Galileo is security. Currently, all EU members have agreements on security and when the UK leaves the EU, it leaves that agreement. Of course, security is just one of hundreds of agreements the UK will be hoping to discuss with the EU through Brexit negations. If security agreements are reached with the UK, maybe the position will change.
  • UK Election – Whilst writing this blog, the UK Prime Minister has announced a General Election in June. Parliamentary changes may influence the type of Brexit we have, but again it is highly unlikely.

It was fairly obvious, despite the contrary political rhetoric, that Brexit would have huge consequences on the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The UK’s space industry looks as though it will be at the forefront of those consequences. Forget 2019, the bite of Brexit is being felt today!

Sentinel To Be Launched

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Sentinel-2B was launched at 01:49 GMT on the 7th March from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. It’s the second of a constellation of optical satellites which are part of the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme.

Its partner Sentinel-2A was launched on the 23rd June 2015, and has been providing some stunning imagery over the last eighteen months like the picture of Plymouth above. We’ve also used the data within our own work. Sentinel-2B carries an identical Multispectral Imager (MSI) instrument to its twin with 13 spectral bands:

  • 4 visible and near infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 10 m
  • 6 short wave infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 20 m
  • 3 atmospheric correction bands with a spatial resolution of 60 m

With a swath width of 290 km the constellation will acquire data in a band of latitude extending from 56° South around Isla Hornos, Cape Horn, South America to 83° North above Greenland, together with observations over specific calibration sites, such as Dome-C in Antarctica. Its focus will be on continental land surfaces, all European islands, islands bigger than 100 square kilometres, land locked seas and coastal waters.

The satellites will orbit 180 degrees apart at an altitude of 786 km, which means that together they will revisit the same point on Earth every five days at the equator, and it may be faster for parts of southern Europe. In comparison, Landsat takes sixteen days to revisit the same point.

With all Copernicus data being made freely available to anyone, the short revisit time offers opportunities small and micro Earth Observation businesses to establish monitoring products and services without the need for significant investment in satellite data paving the way for innovative new solutions to the way in which certain aspects of the environment are managed. Clearly, five day revisits are not ‘real-time’ and the spatial resolution of Sentinel data won’t be suitable for every problem.There is joint work between the US and Europe, to have complementarity with Landsat-8, which has thermal bands, and allows a further opportunity for cloud-free data acquisitions. Also, commercial operators provide higher spatial resolution data.

At Pixalytics we’re supporters of open source in both software and imagery. Our first point of call with any client is to ask whether the solution can be delivered through free to access imagery, as this can make a significant cost saving and allow large archives to be accessed. Of course, for a variety of reasons, it becomes necessary to purchase imagery to ensure the client gets the best solution for their needs. Of course, applications often include a combination of free to access and paid for data.

Next’s week launch offers new opportunities for downstream developers and we’ll be interested to see how we can exploit this new resource to develop our products and services.

Will Earth Observation’s power base shift in 2017?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Strategy For Europe

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

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

A Space Strategy for Europe was issued last week by the European Commission (EC), based around four strategic goals.

  • Maximising the Benefits of Space for Society and the European Union (EU) Economy
  • Fostering a Globally Competitive & Innovative European Space Sector
  • Reinforcing Europe’s Autonomy In Accessing & Using Space In a Secure & Safe Environment
  • Strengthening Europe’s Role as a Global Actor & Promoting International Co-operation

The strategy began with a heartening assessment of the European space economy, recognising that it supports almost a quarter of million jobs and is valued at around €50 bn.

The Earth observation (EO) sector is strongly represented within the document, particularly in the first two goals. Whilst some of the references to EO are fairly obvious statements, there are also some intriguing comments.

Maximising the Benefits of Space for Society and the EU Economy
This goal identifies a significant untapped potential for the uptake of space services and data, and outlines a number of actions that will be taken to unlock this; including:

  • Encouraging the use of space services and data, wherever they provide effective solutions – the last part provides an interesting test.
  • Ensuring EU legislation will be supportive of the uptake of these services.
  • Provision of improved access to, and exploitation of, Copernicus data – anyone who has tried to access data will know the need for continued improvement.Improving interconnectivity with other data infrastructures and other datasets.
  • Define clear limits between free Copernicus core information services and commercial applications – hopefully this will show Copernicus services as an opportunity rather than a threat; something that is currently unclear for, particularly SME, businesses.

Overall, the strategy states this will open up new business opportunities, including for SME’s and start-ups. We’re supportive of these actions, however we also have concerns.

The document has a single line stating it will reach out to new users and connect downstream activities to non-space sectors. This is the holy grail for every EO commercial organisation, and very few have come close to achieving it. The minimal statement potentially suggests the EC is fundamentally underestimating how difficult this will be.

An intriguing element is the intention “to introduce an ‘industry test’ to check downstream suppliers can provide reliable and affordable services.” We’d support any quality accreditation, but it will be interesting to see whether this is a certification scheme for everyone or a barrier to market for SMEs and start-ups.

This issue was strongly debated at a European Space Agency (ESA) meeting last week, particularly over the question as to whether the accrediting body assumes liability when a service doesn’t deliver. It is worth noting that the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) has an existing certification scheme for management practices, but only a few organisations have gone through the process to date.

Fostering a Globally Competitive & Innovative European Space Sector
This goal focuses on supporting research and development within the space economy, together with promoting entrepreneurship and business opportunities.

It specifically references the launch of a dedicated sector skills alliance for space/Earth observation – which sounds great. However, it appears to be a committee of stakeholders to discuss the necessary skills requirements for the industry, and so it is not clear what it will actually do.

The Commission also aims to support space entrepreneurs, start-ups and SME’s through a variety of programmes, dialogues and synergies! Lots of good words used with little clarity of real action.

Reinforcing Europe’s Autonomy In Accessing & Using Space In a Secure & Safe Environment
This goal has a focus on ensuring that Europe has the infrastructure and capacity to operate in space freely; although this does seem slightly at odds with the international co-operation trumpeted in the final goal.

However, the most interesting element for the EO community is the statement that the radio frequency spectrum must be protected from interference from other systems. This is something that is vital for space sector, but falls short of guaranteeing space technology having access to radio frequencies. In recent times, there has been a threat to the microwave frequencies from the requirements of mobile phone and wifi networks.

Strengthening Europe’s Role as a Global Actor & Promoting International Co-operation
The final strategic goal highlights the importance of international co-operation and the desire for the EU to have a much greater global lead. Given that the EU has the second largest public space budget in the world, this emphasis is welcomed.

It also notes that the EU will contribute to initiatives including the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) and the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS).

Summary
Like all strategies there are lots of good intentions within these words, but limited practical details. It won’t be until the detailed plans are draw up to implement these actions that we will be able to determine whether this document is a valuable step forward for the space economy in Europe, or a thirteen page missed opportunity.

Our Footnote for the UK
The strategy makes clear the EU & ESA will be key to the delivery of this strategy, and so we can’t comment without mentioning the Brexit word. The current plan is that the UK will be out of the EU in early 2019, and therefore the UK Government’s input to the upcoming ESA ministerial is absolutely critical, alongside decisions on how we’ll interact with the Copernicus program.

We need to give a strong and positive commitment to our ongoing involvement with ESA, without this the UK’s space economy will face a significant setback. Everyone within the community must ensure that the Government, and Ministers, are fully aware of the importance of this in the coming weeks.