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.

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.

Remote Sensing Goes Cold

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

Remote sensing over the Polar Regions has poked its head above the ice recently.

On the 8th February The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, published a paper by Smith et al titled ’Connected sub glacial lake drainage beneath Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica’. It described how researchers used data from ESA’s CryoSat-2 satellite to look at lakes beneath a glacier.

This work is interesting from a remote sensing viewpoint as it is a repurposing of Cryosat-2’s mission. It’s main purpose is to measure the thickness of the ice sheets and marine ice cover using its Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)/Interferometric Radar Altimeter, known as SIRAL, and it can detect millimetre changes in the elevation of both ice-sheets and sea-ice.

The team were able to use this data to determine that the ice of the glacier had subsided by several metres as water had drained away from four lakes underneath. Whilst the whole process took place between June 2012 and January 2014, the majority of the drainage happened in a six month period. During this time it’s estimated that peak drainage was around 240 cubic metre per second, which is four times faster than the outflow of the River Thames into the North Sea.

We’ve previously highlighted that repurposing data – using data for more purposes than originally intended – is going to be one of the key future innovation trends for Earth Observation.

Last week, ESA also described how Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data have been used over the last five months to monitor a crack in the ice near to the Halley VI research base of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The crack, known as Halloween Crack, is located on the Brunt ice Shelf in the Wedell Sea sector of Antarctica and was identified last October. The crack grew around 600 m per day during November and December, although it has since slowed to only one third of that daily growth.

Since last November Sentinel-2 has been acquiring optical images at each overflight, and this has been combined with SAR data from the two Sentinel-1 satellites. This SAR data will be critical during the Antarctic winter when there are only a few hours of daylight and a couple of weeks around mid-June when the sun does not rise.

This work hit the headlines as BAS decided to evacuate their base for the winter, due to the potential threat. The Halley VI base, which was only 17km from the crack, is the first Antarctic research station to be specifically designed to allow relocation to cope with this sort of movement in the ice shelf. It was already planned to move the base 23 km further inland, and this was successfully completed on the 2nd February. Further movement will depend on how the Halloween Crack develops over the winter.

Finally, the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) project was announced this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Markus Rex outlined the project, which will sail a research vessel into the Arctic sea ice and let it get stuck so it can drift across the North Pole. The vessel will be filled with a variety of remote sensing in-situ instruments, and will aim to collect data on how the climate is changing in this part of the world through measuring the atmosphere-ice-ocean system.

These projects show that the Polar Regions have a lot of interest, and variety, for remote sensing.

Earth Observation Looking Good in 2017!

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

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

2017 is looking like an exciting one for Earth Observation (EO), judging by the number of significant satellites planned for launch this year.

We thought it would be interesting to give an overview of some of the key EO launches we’ve got to look forward to in the next twelve months.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has planned launches of:

  • Sentinel-2B in March, Sentinel-5p in June and Sentinel-3B in August – all of which we discussed last week.
  • ADM-Aeolus satellite is intended to be launched by the end of the year carrying an Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument. This is essentially a lidar instrument which will provide global measurements of wind profiles from ground up to the stratosphere with 0.5 to 2 km vertical resolution.

From the US, both NASA and NOAA have important satellite launches:

  • NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) Mission is planned for June, and will provide observations of Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere; exploring the boundary between Earth and space.
  • NASA’s ICESat-2 in November that will measure ice sheet elevation, ice sheet thickness changes and the Earth’s vegetation biomass.
  • In June NOAA will be launching the first of its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) missions, a series of next-generation polar-orbiting weather observatories.
  • Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment – Follow-On (GRACE_FO) are a pair of twin satellites to extend measurements from the GRACE satellite, maintaining data continuity. These satellites use microwaves to measure the changes in the Earth’s gravity fields to help map changes in the oceans, ice sheets and land masses. It is planned for launch right at the end of 2017, and is a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

Some of the other launches planned include:

  • Kanopus-V-IK is a small Russian remote sensing satellite with an infrared capability to be used for forest fire detection. It has a 5 m by 5 m spatial resolution over a 2000 km swath, and is planned to be launched next month.
  • Vegetation and Environment monitoring on a New MicroSatellite (VENµS), which is partnership between France and Israel has a planned launch of August. As its name suggests it will be monitoring ecosytems, global carbon cycles, land use and land change.
  • KhalifaSat is the third EO satellite of United Arab Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST). It is an optical satellite with a spatial resolution of 0.75 m for the visible and near infrared bands.

Finally, one of the most intriguing launches involves three satellites that form the next part of India’s CartoSat mission. These satellites will carry both high resolution multi- spectral imagers and a panchromatic camera, and the mission’s focus is cartography. It’s not these three satellites that make this launch intriguing, it is the one hundred other satellites that will accompany them!

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-C37, will aim to launch a record 103 satellites in one go. Given that the current record for satellites launched in one go is 37, and that over the last few years we’ve only had around two hundred and twenty satellites launched in an entire year; this will be a hugely significant achievement.

So there you go. Not a fully comprehensive list, as I know there will be others, but hopefully it gives you a flavour of what to expect.

It certainly shows that the EO is not slowing down, and the amount of data available is continuing to grow. This of course gives everyone working in the industry more challenges in terms of storage and processing power – but they are good problems to have. Exciting year ahead!

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!

Monitoring ocean acidification from space

Enhanced pseudo-true colour composite of the United Kingdom showing coccolithophore blooms in light blue. Image acquired by MODIS-Aqua on 24th May 2016. Data courtesy of NASA.

Enhanced pseudo-true colour composite of the United Kingdom showing coccolithophore blooms in light blue. Image acquired by MODIS-Aqua on 24th May 2016. Data courtesy of NASA.

What is ocean acidification?
Since the industrial revolution the oceans have absorbed approximately 50% of the CO2 produced by human activities (The Royal Society, 2005). Scientists previously saw this oceanic absorption as advantageous, however ocean observations in recent decades have shown it has caused a profound change in the ocean chemistry – resulting in ocean acidification (OA); as CO2 dissolves into the oceans it forms carbonic acid, lowering the pH and moving the oceans into a more acidic state. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ocean pH has already decreased by about 30% and some studies suggest that if no changes are made, by 2100, ocean pH will decrease by 150%.

Impacts of OA
It’s anticipated OA will impact many marine species. For example, it’s expected it will have a harmful effect on some calcifying species such as corals, oysters, crustaceans, and calcareous plankton e.g. coccolithophores.

OA can significantly reduce the ability of reef-building corals to produce their skeletons and can cause the dissolution of oyster’s and crustacean’s protective shells, making them more susceptible to predation and death. This in turn would affect the entire food web, the wider environment and would have many socio-economic impacts.

Calcifying phytoplankton, such as coccolithophores, are thought to be especially vulnerable to OA. They are the most abundant type of calcifying phytoplankton in the ocean, and are important for the global biogeochemical cycling of carbon and are the base of many marine food webs. It’s projected that OA may disrupt the formation and/or dissolution of coccolithophores, calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells, impacting future populations. Thus, changes in their abundance due to OA could have far-reaching effects.

Unlike other phytoplankton, coccolithophores are highly effective light scatterers relative to their surroundings due to their production of highly reflective calcium carbonate plates. This allows them to be easily seen on satellite imagery. The figure at the top of this page shows multiple coccolithophore blooms, in light blue, off the coast of the United Kingdom on 24th March 2016.

Current OA monitoring methods
Presently, the monitoring of OA and its effects are predominantly carried out by in situ observations from ships and moorings using buoys and wave gliders for example. Although vital, in situ data is notoriously spatially sparse as it is difficult to take measurements in certain areas of the world, especially in hostile regions (e.g. Polar Oceans). On their own they do not provide a comprehensive and cost-effective way to monitor OA globally. Consequently, this has driven the development of satellite-based sensors.

How can OA be monitored from space?
Although it is difficult to directly monitor changes in ocean pH using remote sensing, satellites can measure sea surface temperature and salinity (SST & SSS) and surface chlorophyll-a, from which ocean pH can be estimated using empirical relationships derived from in situ data. Although surface measurements may not be representative of deeper biological processes, surface observations are important for OA because the change in pH occurs at the surface first.

In 2015 researchers at the University of Exeter, UK became the first scientists to use remote sensing to develop a worldwide map of the ocean’s acidity using satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite that was launched in 2009 and NASA’s Aquarius satellite that was launched in 2011; both are still currently in operation. Thermal mounted sensors on the satellites measure the SST while the microwave sensors measure SSS; there are also microwave SST sensors, but they have a coarse spatial resolution.

Future Opportunities – The Copernicus Program
The European Union’s Copernicus Programme is in the process of launching a series of satellites, known as Sentinel satellites, which will improve understanding of large scale global dynamics and climate change. Of all the Sentinel satellite types, Sentinels 2 and 3 are most appropriate for assessment of the marine carbonate system. The Sentinel-3 satellite was launched in February this year andwill be mainly focussing on ocean measurements, including SST, ocean colour and chlorophyll-a.

Overall, OA is a relatively new field of research, with most of the studies being conducted over the last decade. It’s certain that remote sensing will have an exciting and important role to play in the future monitoring of this issue and its effects on the marine environment.

Blog written by Charlie Leaman, BSc, University of Bath during work placement at Pixalytics.

The cost of ‘free data’

False Colour Composite of the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA.  Image acquired on 6th April 2016. Data courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the Aster Volcano Archive (AVA).

False Colour Composite of the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA. Image acquired on 6th April 2016. Data courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the Aster Volcano Archive (AVA).

Last week, the US and Japan announced free public access to the archive of nearly 3 million images taken by ASTER instrument; previously this data had only been accessible with a nominal fee.

ASTER, Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, is a joint Japan-US instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite with the data used to create detailed maps of land surface temperature, reflectance, and elevation. When NASA made the Landsat archive freely available in 2008, an explosion in usage occurred. Will the same happen to ASTER?

As a remote sensing advocate I want many more people to be using satellite data, and I support any initiative that contributes to this goal. Public satellite data archives such as Landsat, are often referred to as ‘free data’. This phrase is unhelpful, and I prefer the term ‘free to access’. This is because ‘free data’ isn’t free, as someone has already paid to get the satellites into orbit, download the data from the instruments and then provide the websites for making this data available. So, who has paid for it? To be honest, it’s you and me!

To be accurate, these missions are generally funded by the tax payers of the country who put the satellite up. For example:

  • ASTER was funded by the American and Japanese public
  • Landsat is funded by the American public
  • The Sentinel satellites, under the Copernicus missions, are funded by the European public.

In addition to making basic data available, missions often also create a series of products derived from the raw data. This is achieved either by commercial companies being paid grants to create these products, which can then be offered as free to access datasets, or alternatively the companies develop the products themselves and then charge users to access to them.

‘Free data’ also creates user expectations, which may be unrealistic. Whenever a potential client comes to us, there is always a discussion on which data source to use. Pixalytics is a data independent company, and we suggest the best data to suit the client’s needs. However, this isn’t always the free to access datasets! There are a number of physical and operating criteria that need to be considered:

  • Spectral wavebands / frequency bands – wavelengths for optical instruments and frequencies for radar instruments, which determine what can be detected.
  • Spatial resolution: the size of the smallest objects that can be ‘seen’.
  • Revisit times: how often are you likely to get a new image – important if you’re interested in several acquisitions that are close together.
  • Long term archives of data: very useful if you want to look back in time.
  • Availability, for example, delivery schedule and ordering requirement.

We don’t want any client to pay for something they don’t need, but sometimes commercial data is the best solution. As the cost of this data can range from a few hundred to thousand pounds, this can be a challenging conversation with all the promotion of ‘free data’.

So, what’s the summary here?

If you’re analysing large amounts of data, e.g. for a time-series or large geographical areas, then free to access public data is a good choice as buying hundreds of images would often get very expensive and the higher spatial resolution isn’t always needed. However, if you want a specific acquisition over a specific location at high spatial resolution then the commercial missions come into their own.

Just remember, no satellite data is truly free!

Satellite Data Continuity: Hero or Achilles Heel?

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

One of satellite remote sensing’s greatest strengths is the archive of historical data available, allowing researchers to analyse how areas change over years or even decades – for example, Landsat data has a forty year archive. It is one of the unique aspects of satellite data, which is very difficult to replicate by other measurement methods.

However, this unique selling point is also proving an Achilles Heel to industry as well, as highlighted last week, when a group of 179 researchers issued a plea to the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide a replacement for the aging Cryosat-2 satellite.

Cryosat-2 was launched in 2010, after the original Cryosat was lost during a launch failure in 2005, and is dedicated to the measurement of polar ice. It has a non sun-synchronous low earth orbit of just over 700 km with a 369 day ground track cycle, although it does image the same areas on Earth every 30 days. It was originally designed as three and half year mission, but is still going after six years. Although, technically it has enough fuel to last at least another five years, the risk of component failure is such that researchers are concerned that it could cease to function at any time

The main instrument onboard is a Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) operating in the Ku Band. It has two antennas that form an interferometer, and operates by sending out bursts of pulses at intervals of only 50 microseconds with the returning echoes correlated as a single measurement; whereas conventional altimeters send out single pulses and wait for the echo to return before sending out another pulse. This allows it to measure the difference in height between floating ice and seawater to an accuracy of 1.3cm, which is critical to measurement of edges of ice sheets.

SIRAL has been very successful and has offered a number of valuable datasets including the first complete assessment of Arctic sea-ice thickness, and measurements of the ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland. However, these datasets are simply snapshots in time. Scientists want to continue these measurements in the coming years to improve our understanding of how sea-ice and ice sheets are changing.

It’s unlikely ESA will provide a follow on satellite, as their aim is to develop new technology and not data continuity missions. This was part of the reason why the EU Copernicus programme of Sentinel satellites was established, whose aim is to provide reliable and up to date information on how our planet and climate is changing. The recently launched Sentinel-3 satellite can undertake some of the measurements of Cryosat-2, it is not a replacement.

Whether the appeal for a Cryosat-3 will be heard is unclear, but what is clear is thought needs to be given to data continuity with every mission. Once useful data is made available, there will be a desire for a dataset to be continued and developed.

This returns us to the title of the blog. Is data continuity the hero or Achilles Heel for the satellite remote sensing community?

Supercharging Satellite Data

Impression of EDRS high-speed feeder link relays to Europe. Image courtesy of ESA.

Impression of EDRS high-speed feeder link relays to Europe. Image courtesy of ESA.

Satellite remote sensing is set for a speed turbo boost with the launch of the less than snappily named EDRS. The first node of the European Data Relay System (EDRS), which is effectively a space based satellite data super highway, was launched last Saturday.

Most satellites send data back to Earth only as they pass over ground receiving stations. In addition, they have an orbital track that takes them across the entire planet, travelling at speeds of around 7 000 miles per hour, which means they are only in range of a single receiving station for approximately 10 minutes of each orbit. Given the size of Earth observation (EO) datasets, there are limits to the speed EO data can be sent back from space and it becomes increasingly difficult to download the full amount of data that can be collected. This is partially offset by having a network of ground receiving stations across the world. For example, Landsat has an international ground station (IGS) Network that includes three stations in the USA alongside 15 in other countries across the world.

The EDRS works in a different way. It is based in a much higher orbit than many EO satellites, an orbit called geostationary, which means that the satellite remains above the same place on Earth at all times and thus is in constant contact with its ground station. ERDS collects data from EO satellites by laser, and can stay in contact with the satellites for a much longer period because of its higher height. Once the EDRS has received the data, it immediately relays the data to its ground station.

EDRS-A was launched by piggybacking the Eutelsat 9B satellite, whilst a second satellite, curiously called EDRS-C, is due to launch in 2017. The International Space Station will also be connected up in 2018, and a third satellite is planned for launch in 2020 and will sit over the Asia-Pacific region. It will require further satellites to provide twenty-four hour all orbit data relay coverage.

After a significant testing phase, EDRS is expected to go into service this summer. The European Commission’s Copernicus Programme will be the first major customer, relaying data from its Sentinel satellites.

Once fully operational the system will be capable of relaying up to 50 terabytes of data each day at speeds of up to 1.8 gigabits per second, which is about 90 to 100 times faster than a typical internet connection.

This will dramatically improve access to time-critical data, and will benefit a variety of applications including:

  • Rescue and disaster relief teams that need EO data to focus and support their work.
  • Monitoring fast moving environmental issues such as forest fires, floods, pollution incidents and sea ice zones.
  • Government and security services that could utilise real time data to support their aircraft and unmanned aerial observation vehicles.
  • Monitoring of illegal fishing or piracy events.

EDRS will certainly supercharge EO and remote sensing, offering new opportunities for the provision of near real time applications to a variety of users.