Picking Up Penguins From Space

Danger Islands, off Antarctica. Landsat-8 image acquired on 7th December 2017. Image courtesy of NASA/USGS.

World Wildlife Day is the 3rd March, and so fittingly this blog is looking at how satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques were used to recently discover an unknown colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands off the Antarctica Peninsula in the north-western Weddell Sea. Adélie penguins only live along the Antarctic coast, and they grow to a height of around 70cm and weigh between three and six kilograms.

The paper by ‘Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot by Borowicz et al was published in Scientific Reports on the 2nd March 2018. It is interestingly not only because of the discovery of unknown penguins but also because the research combines historic aerial imagery, satellite imagery, drone footage and remote sensing techniques.

The research has its roots in an earlier paper by Lynch and Schwaller from 2014, entitled ‘Mapping the Abundance and Distribution of Adélie Penguins Using Landsat-7: First Steps towards an Integrated Multi-Sensor Pipeline for Tracking Populations at the Continental Scale.’ It describes the development of an algorithm to analyse Landsat and high resolution imagery from WorldView-2 to estimate the size of penguin colonies based on the extent of the guana area. A classification approach was developed from a training dataset of 473 Landsat-7 pixels covering existing Adeline colonies, supported by over 10,000 pixels relating to features such as rock, soil and vegetation.

In the recently published paper, of which Heather Lynch was also a co-author, the team combined a range of imagery alongside some in-situ data to achieve their results. Different types of imagery were used:

  • High Resolution Imagery: Areas of guano staining on the Danger Islands were identified manually from WorldView-2 scenes.
  • Historical aerial photographs: Images taken by Falkland Islands Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition (FIDASE) on the 31st January 1957 were digitally scanned and geo-referenced to the WorldView-2 data. They were then divided into polygons and analysed using manual classification processing using the open source QGIS software.
  • Landsat: The algorithm previously developed by Lynch and Schwaller was enhanced to work with data from Landsat-4, 7 and 8 by calculating the mean difference of similar bands from Landsat-4 and 8 compared to Landsat-7, and then adjusting based on the mean differences in each spectral band. The enhanced algorithm was then used to classify the penguin colony areas.
  • Drone data: Using a 1.2 megapixel camera flown at height of between 25 m and 45 m, captured footage was processed to produce georeferenced orthomosaics of the Danger Islands. Machine learning techniques were then applied using a deep neural network to locate and identify potential penguins. A training dataset of 160 images with 1237 penguins, followed by a validation dataset of 93 images with 673 penguins was used to teach the network. Once fully trained it analysed all the islands, and the results were validated with a number of manual counts. The scientists worked on an accuracy of plus or minus ten percent for the automated counts, although the variation with the in-situ counts was only 0.6 percent.

The outcome of this research was an identification of 751,527 pairs of previously unknown Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands. More surprisingly is that this increases the world estimates of this type of penguin by almost 50%, when it had been thought that the population had been declining for the last 40 years. The historical aerial imagery has led scientists to speculate that this new colony has remained constant for around the last 60 years in contrast to other known colonies.

This work is a great example of not only how much can be achieved with free-to-access imagery, but also how satellite imagery is helping us discover new things about our planet.

Flywheels Spinning At Data.Space

The Data.Space Conference took place last week in Glasgow. It was an interesting, thought-provoking and useful event, which felt very friendly and was distinguished by the seniority of the attendees with a lot of companies were represented by CEO’s, MD’s and owners/founders.

The event began with the session ‘Listening to our Earth’ with presentations from Spire, Hawkeye360, KSAT, CGI UK and Promos Ventures. We were particularly caught by the idea from Peter Platzer of Spire, who talked about the flywheel and how you need to build momentum within companies to move from good to great, in particular focussing on making a tenfold improvement on what currently exists.

Sam gave her presentation in the second session on ‘Looking at our Earth’, which can be accessed here. We found it encouraging that some of the key messages that we picked out were echoed by other presenters, both in this session and others. The common themes highlighted included:

  • Stop focussing on imagery, and focus more on customer needs.
  • Demonstrate the problem that the Earth Observation (EO) data solves and the value it adds.
  • The fact that the data comes from space isn’t critical to the customer.

We had a number of people come up after Samantha’s presentation to say how much they enjoyed it, which is always good! Interestingly, hers was not the only presentation that Pixalytics got mentioned in. Our blog on ‘Earth Observation Satellites in Space’ was name checked by Will Cadell, CEO of Sparkgeo, in the session after lunch. A highlight of which was Grega Milcinski, CEO Sinergise, demonstrating the possibilities of the Sentinel Hub and how they are making a lot of their code available on GitHub to enable others to build on it.

The second day began with a thought provoking session on using EO to create a better planet. Temporal resolution, file sizes, lack of internet facilities and the need to have quick simple maps was highlighted as a challenge to using EO data in disaster relief scenarios. Access to datasets was highlighted by Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch, as a barrier to providing a planet wide view of what is happening. It was also great to listen to Steve Lee from Astrosat talk about their experiences of two UK Space Agency International Partnership Programme projects, and pick up some pointers for the ones we’re involved in.

As a micro company, the second session of this day was fascinating to us giving an overview of what investors and venture capital people look for in companies. It was heartening to hear that data analytics is seen as having a lot of value, but less positive was that the vast majority of funding in this area is going into the US. It was also noted that these funders aren’t interested in funding research, they want to get in on the ‘Last Mile’ of a product or service – making us wonder whether we would ever be attractive to investors!

Pixalytics Stand at Data.Space

Throughout the conference we manned our small table, surrounded by companies with the obligatory pop-up banners. We stood alone bare backed as we flew to Glasgow on Easyjet and a pop-up banner would have been an extra bag! We had lots of interesting conversations over potential collaborations, new customers, product ideas and solutions to challenges; and we even managed to sell a couple of copies of our book! We were able to demonstrate our portal, and we got some really good feedback. We’ll be looking for more feedback and some beta testers over the coming weeks – please get in touch in you’re interested! Finally, we‘d also like to commend the fantastic food offering at the event, which had lots of lovely Scottish notes.

Overall, this was a great event and we’ll certainly be looking to go back next year!

Big Data From Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth observation satellites in space in 2017?

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

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

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

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

  • Optical Imaging: 327 satellites representing a 98% increase on last year
  • Radar imaging: 45 satellites, a 32% increase on last year
  • Infrared imaging: 7 satellites, no change to last year
  • Meteorology: 64 satellites, a 73% increase on last year
  • Earth Science: 60 satellites, a 13% increase on last year
  • Electronic intelligence: 50 satellites, a 6% increase on last year
  • 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!

Can You See The Great Wall of China From Space?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brexit: Science & Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Flip-Sides of Soil Moisture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen’s Speech Targets Space

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

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

Last week was the State Opening of Parliament in the UK following the General Election, this included the Queen’s Speech which set out the legislation the Government intends introduce in the coming Parliament. As expected, Brexit dominated the headlines and so you may have missed the announcement of the Space Industry Bill.

The space sector has been a growth target for the Government since 2010, when it set an ambitious target of delivering 10% of the global space economy. The last UK Space Agency report covered 2014/15 and indicated the industry was worth £13.7bn – equivalent to 6.5% of the global space economy.

Our space industry is inextricably linked to Europe through the European Space Agency (ESA). Whilst, as we have described before, Brexit won’t affect our role in ESA, other projects such as Copernicus and Galileo are EU led projects and the UK’s future involvement isn’t clear. This Bill is part of the Government’s response, and its aim is to make the UK the most attractive place in Europe for commercial space activities.

We’ve previously written about the current UK licencing and regulatory arrangements for anyone who wants to launch an object into space, as detailed in the Outer Space Act 1986. This Bill will change that framework and has the following key elements:

  • New powers to license a wide range of spaceflight activities, including vertically-launched rockets, spaceplanes, satellite operations, spaceports and other technologies.
  • Comprehensive and proportionate regulatory framework to manage risk.
  • Measures to regulate unauthorised access and interference with spacecraft, spaceports and associated infrastructure.
  • Measures to promote public safety by providing a regulatory framework to cover operational insurance, indemnity and liability.

The Bill itself is based on the draft Spaceflight Bill published in February, together with the Government responses to the twelve recommendations of the Science and Technology Committee Report on the Draft Spaceflight Bill which was issued on the 22nd June.

There are still a number of questions to be answered over the coming months.

  • Limited Liability: Currently, the standard requirement is to have insurance of at least €60 million. However, the draft Bill suggests that insurance requirements will be determined as part of the license application process. Clearly, the different types of spaceflight will have different risks and so having flexibility makes sense; however, until the industry understands this aspects it will be a concerning area of uncertainty.
  • Spaceports: Previously, the Government intended to select a location for a spaceport, but last year this changed to offering licences for spaceports. This means there could be multiple spaceports in the country, but it is questionable whether there is sufficient business to support multiple sites. Given the specialist knowledge and skills needed to launch spacecraft, it is likely that a preferred site will eventually emerge, with or without Government involvement.
  • Speed of Change: Back in 2012 the Government acknowledged that regulations for launching objects into space needed to be revised as they didn’t suit smaller satellites. Since that time satellites have got even smaller, constellation launches are increasing rapidly and costs are decreasing. The legislation and regulations will need to evolve as quickly as the technology, if the UK is to be the most attractive place to do business. Can we do this?

The UK Space Industry is in for a roller coaster over the coming years. Brexit will undoubtedly be challenging, and will throw up many threats; whereas the Space Industry Bill will offer opportunities. To be successful companies will need to tread a careful path.

Blue Holes from Space

Andros Island in The Bahamas. Acquired by Landsat 8 in February 2017. Data courtesy of NASA.

Blue holes are deep marine caverns or sinkholes which are open at the surface, and they get their name from their apparent blue colour of their surface due to the scattering of the light within water. The often contain both seawater and freshwater, and in their depths the water is very clear which makes them very popular with divers.

The term ‘blue hole’ first appeared on sea charts from the Bahamas in 1843, although the concept of submarine caves had been described a century earlier (from Schwabe and Carew, 2006). There are a number of well-known blue holes in Belize, Egypt and Malta amongst others. The Dragon Hole in the South China Sea is believed to be the deepest blue hole with a depth of 300 metres.

The Andros Island in The Bahamas has the highest concentration of blue holes in the world, and last week we watched a television programme called River Monsters featuring this area. The presenter, Jeremy Wade, was investigating the mythical Lusca, a Caribbean sea creature which reportedly attacks swimmers and divers pulling them down to their lairs deep within of the blue holes. Jeremy fished and dived some blue holes, and spoke to people who had seen the creature. By the end he believed the myth of the Lusca was mostly likely based on a giant octopus. Whilst this was interesting, by the end of the programme we were far more interested in whether you could see blue holes from space.

The image at the top is Andros Island. Although, technically it’s an archipelago, it is considered as a single island. It’s the largest island of The Bahamas and at 2,300 square miles is the fifth largest in the Caribbean. There are a number of well known blue holes in Andros, both inland and off the coast, such as:

Blues in the Blue Hole National Park on the Andros Island in The Bahamas. Acquired by Landsat 8 in February 2017. Data courtesy of NASA.

  • Blue Holes National Park covers over 33,000 acres and includes a variety of blue holes, freshwater reservoirs and forests within its boundaries. The image to the right covers an area of the national park. In the centre, just above the green water there are five black circles  – despite the colour, these are blue holes.
  • Uncle Charlie’s Blue Hole, also called Little Frenchman Blue Hole, is just off Queen’s Highway in Nicholls Town and has a maximum depth of 127 metres.
  • Atlantis Blue Hole has a maximum depth of about 85 metres.
  • Stargate Blue Hole his blue hole is located about 500 miles inland from the east coast of South Andros on the west side of The Bluff village.
  • Guardian Blue Hole is in the ocean and is believed to have the second deepest cave in The Bahamas, with a maximum explored depth of 133 metres.

Blue hole in the south of Andros Island in The Bahamas. Acquired by Landsat 8 in February 2017. Data courtesy of NASA.

The image to the right is from the south of the island. Just off the centre, you can see a blue hole surrounded by forests and vegetation.

So we can confirm that the amazing natural features called blue holes can be seen from space, even if they don’t always appear blue!

Monitoring Fires From Space

Monitoring fires from space has significant advantages when compared to on-ground activity. Not only are wider areas easier to monitor, but there are obvious safety benefits too. The different ways this can be done have been highlighted through a number of reports over the last few weeks.

VIIRS Image from 25 April 2017, of the Yucatán Peninsula showing where thermal bands have picked-up increased temperatures. Data Courtesy of NASA, NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.

Firstly, NASA have released images from different instruments, on different satellites, that illustrate two ways of how satellites can monitor fires.

Acquired on the 25 April 2017, an image from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite showed widespread fire activity across the Yucatán Peninsula in South America. The image to the right is a natural colour image and each of the red dots represents a point where the instrument’s thermal band detected temperatures higher than normal.

False colour image of the West Mims fire on Florida/Georgia boundary acquired by MODIS on 02 May 2017. Data courtesy of NASA. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.

Compare this to a wildfire on Florida-Georgia border acquired from NASA’s Aqua satellite on the 02 May 2017 using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). On the natural colour image the fires could only be seen as smoke plumes, but on the left is the false colour image which combines infrared, near-infrared and green wavelengths. The burnt areas can be clearly seen in brown, whilst the fire itself is shown as orange.

This week it was reported that the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre in India, has been combining remote sensing, geographical information systems and Global Positioning System (GPS) data to identify the burning of crop stubble in fields; it appears that the MODIS fire products are part of contributing the satellite data. During April, 788 illegal field fires were identified through this technique and with the GPS data the authorities have been able to identify, and fine, 226 farmers for undertaking this practice.

Imaged by Sentinel-2, burnt areas, shown in shades of red and purple, in the Marantaceae forests in the north of the Republic of Congo.
Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by ESA.

Finally, a report at the end of April from the European Space Agency described how images from Sentinel-1 and Senintel-2 have been combined to assess the amount of forest that was burnt last year in the Republic of Congo in Africa – the majority of which was in Marantaceae forests. As this area has frequent cloud cover, the optical images from Sentinel-2 were combined with the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images from Sentinel-1 that are unaffected by the weather to offer an enhanced solution.

Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data detect and monitor forest fires at a finer temporal and spatial resolution than previously possible, namely 10 days and 10 m, although the temporal resolution will increase to 5 days later this year when Sentinel-2B becomes fully operational.  Through this work, it was estimated that 36 000 hectares of forest were burnt in 2016.

Given the danger presented by forest fires and wildfires, greater monitoring from space should improve fire identification and emergency responses which should potentially help save lives. This is another example of the societal benefit of satellite remote sensing.