EO Market Is a-Changin’

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

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

Historically, if you wanted satellite Earth Observation (EO) data your first port of call was usually NASA, or NOAA for meteorological data, and more recently you’d look at the European Union’s Copernicus programme. Data from commercial operators were often only sought if the free-to-access data from these suppliers did not meet your needs.
However, to quote Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. NASA, NOAA and Copernicus are buying, or intending to buy, data from commercial operators.

However, as with many activities there are often precedents. For example, the SeaWiFS mission was built to NASA’s specifications and launched in 1997. It was owned by the commercial organisation Orbital Sciences Corporation and NASA conducted a ‘data-buy’. They’ve moved back in this direction last month as NASA issued a Request for Information for US companies interested in participating in the Earth Observations from Private Sector Small Satellite Constellations Pilot. The aim of this programme is to identify commercial organisations collecting EO data relating to Essential Climate Variables (ECV), and then to evaluate whether this would be a cost effective approach to gathering data rather than, or alongside, launching their own satellites.

To interest NASA the companies need to have a constellation of at least three satellites in a non-geostationary orbits, and the ECV dataset will need to include details of both instrument calibration and processing techniques used. Initially, NASA plans to provide this data to researchers to undertake the evaluation. According to Space News, 11 responses to the request had been received. Discussions will take place with responding companies over the next month and it’s anticipated orders will be placed in March 2018.

NOAA is another US agency looking to the private small satellite sector through their Commercial Weather Data pilot programme. To supplement their own data collections they’ve already purchased GPS radio occupation data and are planning to buy both microwave sounding and radiometry data.

Not everyone is aware that the Copernicus Programme also purchases data from commercial sources as part of its Contributing Missions Programme. Essentially, if data is not available for any reason from the Sentinel satellites, then the equivalent data is sought from one of 30 current contributing missions which include other international partners such as NASA, but also commercial providers.

Whilst part of the drive behind this approach is to ensure data continuity, in the US the backdrop has a more long term concern with President Trump’s intention to move NASA away from EO to focus efforts on deep space exploration. It’s not been fully confirmed yet, but there is due to be a Congress budget discussion later this week and if approved it could mean the loss of the following four NASA missions:

• Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite
• Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3)
• Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder
• Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)

Whilst buying data from commercial providers may offer opportunities, it also has a number of challenges including how to buy this whilst maintaining their commitment to free-to-access data, and with the shorter lifespans of small satellites the increased pressure on calibration and validation work.

It’s clear that things are evolving in the EO market and the private sector is coming much more to the fore as a primary data supplier to researchers, national and international bodies.

Earth observation satellites in space in 2017?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the current active EO satellites there are:

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

Who uses the Earth observation satellites?

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

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

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

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

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

Few interesting facts about active Earth observation satellites

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

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

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

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

UK Government View On ESA and Space Industry

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

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

This week we got a glimpse of the UK Government’s view on the space industry, with the publication of Satellites and Space: Government Response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee’s Third Report of Session 2016/17. The original report was published in June and contained a series of recommendations, to which the Government responded.

The timing is interesting for two reasons:

  • Firstly, it comes just before the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place on Thursday and Friday this week in Lucerne. We highlighted the importance of this meeting in a recent blog.
  • Secondly, it has taken the Government five months to respond, something the Committee themselves were disappointed with.

The Government’s response has a number of insights into the future for the UK space industry. The full report can be seen here, but we wanted to pick out three things that caught our eye:

For us, and the ESA Ministerial, the most interesting comment was that the Government reaffirmed that the UK will remain a member of ESA after Brexit. It also noted that “The UK’s investment in the European Space Agency is an important part of our overall investment in space, from which we obtain excellent value.” Whilst the level of financial commitment to ESA won’t become clear until the Ministerial, the mood music seems positive.

Earth Observation
The role of the Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) was highlighted, particularly in relation to helping the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs use satellite data more. As part of SSGP we ran a successful Flood Mapping project during 2015/16. SSGP is running again this year, but given the importance placed on the programme on embedding space activities within Government it was disappointing not to see a further commitment beyond March 2017.

A business plan for a Government Earth Observation Service is currently being written, which is aimed at increasing the uptake of EO data within Government. We’ve not seen too much about this service yet, and will be very interested in the business plan.

Responding a question on harnessing the public interest in Tim Peake’s time in space, it was nice to see the work of the EO Detective highlighted. This is a fantastic project that raises awareness of the space industry in schools, and uses space/satellite imagery to help children explore topics such as climate change.

Small Satellites
“The Government intends to establish the UK as the European hub for low cost launch of small satellites.” It’s an interesting ambition; although it’s not completely clear what they mean by the term small satellites. As we described last week definitions are important.

On top of the three points above there were some words on funding for space related research; however these amounted to no more than an acknowledgement that various Government bodies will work together. There was also reference to the development of a new Space Growth Strategy, something we’ll talk more about in two weeks.

The Government’s response to this report was an interesting read, and whilst there are still a lot of unanswered questions it does hint at cautious optimism that they will support the space industry.

We were all on tenterhooks this week waiting the big announcements from the ESA Ministerial, and here are some of the headline outcomes:

  • Overall, ESA’s 22 member states plus Slovenia and Canada allocated €10.3 billion for space activities and programmes over the next five years. This includes an EO programme valued at €1.37 bn up until 2025.

Within this overall envelope, the UK has allocated €1.4 bn funding over five years, which equates to 13.5% of total. This includes:

  • €670.5 m for satellite technology including telecommunications, navigation and EO.
  • €376.4 m for science and space research
  • €82,4 m for the ExoMars programme.
  • €71 m for the International Space Station Programme
  • €22 m for innovate space weather missions

Our eye was, of course, drawn to the investment in EO and there is a little more detail, with the €670.5 m is:€60 m for the development of the commercial use of space data €228.8 m for environmental science applications and climate services through ESA’s EO programme, including:

  • Incubed – a new programme to help industry develop the Earth observation satellite technology for commercial markets
  • the Biomass mission to measure the carbon stored in the world’s forests
  • the Aeolus mission, measuring wind speed in three dimensions from space

Finally, it is worth noting Katherine Courtney, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, who commented, “This significant investment shows how the UK continues to build on the capability of the UK space sector and demonstrates our continuing strong commitment to our membership in the European Space Agency.”

Small Satellites Step Forward

Artist's concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Image courtesy of NASA.

Artist’s concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Image courtesy of NASA.

We’re all about small satellites with this blog, after looking at the big beast that is GOES-R last week. Small satellites, microsatellites, cubesats or one of the other myriad of names they’re described as, have been in the news this month.

Before looking at what’s happening, we’re going to start with some definitions. Despite multiple terms being used interchangeably, they are different and are defined based around either their cubic size or their wet mass – ‘wet mass’ refers to the weight of the satellite including fuel, whereas dry mass is just the weight of satellite:

  • Small satellites (smallsats), also known as minisats, have a wet mass of between 100 and 500 kg.
  • Microsats generally have a wet mass of between 10 and 100 kg.
  • Nanosats have a wet mass of between 1 and 10 kg.
  • Cubesats are a class of nanosats that have a standard size. One Cubesat measures 10x10x10 cm, known as 1U, and has a wet mass of no more than 1.33 kg. However, it is possible to join multiple cubes together to form a larger single unit.
  • Picosats have a wet mass of between 0.1 and 1 kg
  • Femtosats have a wet mass of between 10 and 100 g

To give a comparison, GOES-R had a wet mass of 5 192 kg, a dry mass of 2 857 kg, and a size of 6.1 m x 5.6 m x 3.9 m.

Small satellites have made headlines for a number of reasons, and the first two came out of a NASA press briefing given by Michael Freilich, Director of NASA’s Earth science division on the 7th November. NASA is due to launch the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) on 12th December from Cape Canaveral. CYGNSS will be NASA’s first Earth Observation (EO) small satellite constellation. The mission will measure wind speeds over the oceans, which will be used to improve understanding, and forecasting, of hurricanes and storm surges.

The constellation will consist of eight small satellites in low Earth orbits, which will be focussed over the tropics rather than the whole planet. Successive satellites in the constellation will pass over the same area every twelve minutes, enabling an image of wind speed over the entire tropics every few hours.

Each satellite will carry a Delay Doppler Mapping Instrument (DDMI) which will receive signals from existing GPS satellites and the reflection of that same signal from the Earth. The scattered signal from the Earth will measure ocean roughness, from which wind speed can be derived. Each microsatellite will weigh around 29 kg and measure approximately 51 x 64 x 28 cm; on top of this will be solar panels with a span of 1.67 m.

The second interesting announcement as reported by Space News, was that NASA is planning to purchase EO data from other small satellite constellation providers, to assess the quality and usability of that data. They will be one-off purchases with no ongoing commitment, and will sit alongside data from existing NASA missions. However, it is difficult not to assume that a successful and cost effective trial could lead to ongoing purchases, which could replace future NASA missions.

It’s forecast that this initiative could be worth in the region of $25 million, and will surely interest the existing suppliers such as Planet or TerraBella; however, in the longer term it could also attract new players to the market.

Finally in non NASA small satellite news, there was joint announcement at the start of the month by the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that they’d agreed to create a joint satellite constellation for EO. No further detail is available at this stage.

Once again, this shows what a vibrant, changing and evolving industry we work in!

Remote Sensing and the DIKW Pyramid

DIKW PyramidSatellite remote sensing industry is evolving and anyone working in it needs to become familiar with the Data, information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) pyramid as this is one map, albeit simplistic, of the industry’s and our current journey.

Historically, satellite data was either sold as the original image or with a small amount of processing undertaken. If anyone wanted to do anything beyond basic processing, they had to do it themselves. However, things are changing.

According to a recent Euroconsult report, at least 3,600 small satellites will be launched over the next decade. The United Nations Office on Outer Space Affairs only lists 7,370 objects that have ever been launched into space, of which only 4,197 are still in orbit. We’re increasing the number of objects orbiting the Earth by 85% by smallsats alone, larger satellites will add even more.

The volume, variety and speed of this data collected by these satellites will present a step change not only in the type of applications companies will be able to offer, but, crucially, also in customer expectations – more and more they will be looking for added value.

One way of considering this is through the DIKW pyramid, which can be seen at the top of the blog, it’s credited to American organisational theorist Russell Ackoff in 1989, building on the ideas of Milan Zeleny two years earlier.

A simple summary of the pyramid starts with the collection of data which means nothing in its own right, it is simply data. Information is derived from data by asking the who, what, where, when and how questions. Knowledge is information to which expert skills and experience have been added to create more value – which is more profitable in a business context. Finally, wisdom is understanding what actions to take based on the knowledge you’ve gained.

Applying this to satellite remote sensing for agriculture, one example might be: data is the satellite data/image of the field. Information is knowing when the image was taken leading to where in the growing cycle the crop was. Knowledge is applying scientific algorithms to know the soil moisture, how much nutrients are in the soil or how much vegetation is present in various parts of the field. Wisdom is knowing what nutrients and fertilizers to apply, based on the knowledge gained, to improve crop yields.

A lot of Earth observation products are at the data or information level, with a few at the knowledge level, and even fewer at the wisdom level. Customers more and more want wisdom products, and they aren’t that interested in what was required to create them. When you add to this the additional types of geospatial information, e.g., optical and radar used together alongside airborne and in-field ground based measurements, the variety of open datasets and the new science and technological breakthroughs, things are going to look very different, very quickly.

We’d accept that the DIKW isn’t a perfect tool, nor a perfect representation of our industry, but it is simple, indicative and worth thinking about. We wrote about our intention to create products in an earlier blog. We’re a long way from the wisdom sector, but are hoping to be firmly within the knowledge sector and collaborating to create wisdom. It’s not easy and some companies will find it harder to do than others, but is going to be the future. How are you preparing?

Shrinking Satellites

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

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

Satellites, like Dairy Milk, Mars Bars and Snickers, are getting smaller these days. Factors contributing to this shrinkage include new technology, continued miniaturisation of computing components and increased launch costs – whereas smaller size equals less weight and less weight equals lower costs.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database at the end of August 2015, the total launch weight of all satellites still in orbit is approximately two and half million kilograms! A sobering thought given that most of these are travelling in excess of seventeen thousand miles per hour! The Guinness Book of Records lists the heaviest commercial satellite as TerreStar-1 that had a launch mass of 6 903.8 kg in 2009; whereas the heaviest payload is the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Telescope that had a weight of 22 753 kg when launched in 1999. Although, it should be noted there are number of large military satellites in space whose launch weight cannot be verified. However, everyone can agree that these satellites are large and heavy!

Smaller satellites have been around since 2000, but it wasn’t until 2013 when 92 smaller satellites were launched in a single year that the numbers became significant. There are a number of categories of small satellites:

  • Minisatellites have a mass of between 100 kg and 500 kg.
  • Microsatellites have a mass between 10 kg and 100 kg.
  • Nanosatellites have a mass between 1 kg and 10 kg.
  • Picosatellites have a mass between 0.1 kg and 1 kg.
  • Femtosatellites have a mass between 10 g and 100 g.

Smaller satellites do have technical challenges. These include shorter overall life, limitations on propulsion and manoeuvring capabilities, less computing power and very low bandwidth communication systems. There have been a number of innovative solutions developed to respond these challenges, for example the UK company Oxford Space Systems have developed deployable structures, such as antennas and solar panels, based on the principles of origami using ‘shape memory’ materials. This has resulted in lighter, simple and cheaper deployable structures, for example, they have a parabolic antenna scalable up to twelve metres.

Technical issues are not the only challenges for small satellites, the regularity framework has not yet adapted to the changing market. As we’ve discussed previously, within the UK the Outer Space Act 1986 details the regulations for satellite launches. These are based around large satellites, and are not at all favourable to small satellites. The UK Space Agency recently issued a series of recommendations on how the regulatory approach might be tailored for smaller satellites.

Smaller satellites offer a more flexible, and cheaper, way of getting sensors and experiments into space. While this is great for smaller companies and educational institutes; commercial organisations are also taking advantage of this new trend. It will be interesting to see if the trend for smaller satellites continues to grow or, like mobile phones, the miniaturisation ceases and they get bigger again!