Space technology for life on Earth
The abundance of data that satellites collect about our planet is not very useful in its original form, but once it is processed and applied to specific situations, it can help solve a myriad of problems on Earth. For example, remote sensing technology can be used to detect environmental changes, satellite communication can assist with remote services and natural disaster management, and human spaceflight has advanced our understanding of medicine.
ESA’s Discovery and Preparation programme has supported many investigations into how space technology can be applied to Earth-based challenges. This article focuses on three such applications – forecasting natural disasters, monitoring ocean plastic, and enabling autonomous shipping.
Forecasting natural disasters
According to Agence France-Presse, in 2010 natural disasters killed 300 000 people worldwide and affected another 220 million. They also caused $120 billion of economic damage. And worryingly, the impacts of disasters are magnifying each year due to growing urbanisation and increasing extreme weather events.
Timely forecasting of natural disasters could help save lives and reduce the impact on the economy. In the past, it has been difficult to predict such disasters, but satellites are able to provide new information to make it much easier.
To achieve this, Discovery and Preparation has supported studies that explore how exactly we can predict natural disasters using satellite data. These studies better inform authorities when natural disasters are imminent, helping them act faster with a more coordinated response.
One of the first studies ran under a working group consisting of representatives of space agencies around the world, set up by ESA to research global disaster hotspots. The long-term vision of this group is for space agencies to coordinate their resources so that Earth observation data can be used to forecast all types of natural disasters. The study investigated what space technology should be developed to achieve this.
Following this investigation, another study explored how Earth observation data could be combined with advancements in Information and Communication Technologies to improve natural disaster forecasting. The ideas proposed within the study focused on cloud-based infrastructure, particularly the semi-automatic processing of large amounts of data.
More specific studies looked into how existing satellite data could be used to analyse drought in southern Africa and to study tectonic processes in Indonesia. Indonesia often experiences volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In the case of one volcano – Mount Marapi – a large-scale eruption that could potentially put 1.1 million people at risk is long overdue, highlighting the need for natural disaster forecasting. By combining SAR interferometry – a technique based on RADAR – with global navigation systems, space technology can be used to monitor ground movement over time.
Monitoring ocean plastic
Approximately 10 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean every single year. About 70% of this sinks to the sea floor, whilst 30% remains floating on the surface. That’s three million tonnes of plastic with the potential to be washed up on coastlines, affecting not just wildlife but also coastal communities, tourism and the food chain.
Monitoring this plastic can be very difficult from Earth’s surface, as it is impossible to see much of the ocean at once. But satellites with very high-resolution cameras and wide fields of view are changing our ability to monitor plastic waste, and Discovery and Preparation is supporting studies that investigate the best way of doing so.
Measurements from space are already used indirectly to get to grips with the problem of marine plastic litter, for example maps of ocean currents can inform us where plastic is likely to move to, so we can work out approximate plastic concentrations around the world.
An ongoing study related to the remote sensing of marine litter is investigating how satellites could more directly measure seaborne plastic. The study is exploring whether this could be done from where satellites usually sit at the top of atmosphere, or whether it would require drone or aircraft measurements from the middle of the atmosphere.
The ultimate goal of this activity is to contribute to measuring concentrations of marine plastic, both locally and globally. The activity also aims to identify how plastic litter is transported across oceans around the world, as well as its sources and sinks. In doing so, we would see where best to focus our efforts to reduce marine plastic.
Enabling autonomous shipping
Just as driverless cars could be the future of the automotive industry, captain-less ships could be the future of the shipping industry. Autonomous shipping has the potential to significantly lower the cost of shipping, increase safety, solve anticipated crew shortages, and improve working conditions.
But autonomous shipping relies on an accurate and continuously-available navigation system. Discovery and Preparation has supported studies into how to enhance existing satellite navigation systems to enable autonomous shipping, for example by combining them with ground-based systems to improve positioning accuracy.
One such study designed a mission that would assist with autonomous shipping thanks to its quick response time and ability to re-image an area very quickly. Applications of the satellite could include routine monitoring of departure points, relocation of ships at sea, ship tracking and monitoring of suspicious activity – like illegal immigration, illegal drug trafficking and piracy!
One of the most difficult times for the captain of a ship is entering or leaving a harbour. Another study evaluated the feasibility of creating a system that would monitor all ships in the harbour to avoid collisions. The system would make use of ESA’s Galileo and EGNOS systems to calculate new routes for ships.
The International Maritime Organization runs an anti-collision system for ships which uses data from ground-based sensors. Another ESA-supported study looked into how satellite data could be included in the system to fill gaps in the terrestrial system and ensure worldwide coverage.