Space technology for life on Earth

Implementation & Support

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The vast amount of data that satellites collect about our planet can help solve countless problems on Earth. For example, remote sensing technology can be used to detect environmental changes, satellite communications can help remote services and natural disaster management, and human spaceflight has advanced our understanding of medicine.

The Discovery element of ESA’s core operations has supported many investigations into how space technology can be applied to Earth-based challenges. This paper focuses on three applications: predicting natural disasters, monitoring plastic marine debris, and enabling autonomous shipping.

Forecasting natural disasters

Copernicus Sentinel-1 data shows subterranean upwelling around Bali’s Mount Agung volcano. The upheaval occurred shortly before an eruption, which was preceded by several smaller earthquakes. Ground movement indicates that new magma is moving beneath the volcano—a sign of an impending eruption.

According to our world in data, an average of 45 000 people die worldwide from natural disasters every year. They still affect the quality of life of many people and cause billions in economic damage. More worryingly, the impacts of disasters may worsen due to increasing urbanization and increasing extreme weather events.

Timely forecasting of natural disasters can help save lives and reduce the impact on the economy. In the past, such disasters have been difficult to predict, but satellites can provide new information to facilitate rapid and coordinated action.

To achieve this, ESA Discovery has supported research investigating how we can better predict natural disasters using satellite data.

One of the first studies was run under a task force made up of representatives from space agencies around the world, set up by ESA to research global disaster hotspots. The group’s long-term vision is for space agencies to pool their resources so that Earth observation data can be used to predict all types of natural disasters. The study explored which aerospace technologies would need to be developed to achieve this.

Fires in South Africa’s Western Cape occur mostly during the dry summer months and are exacerbated by drought. Satellites can be used to identify vulnerable areas.

Following this investigation, another study explored how Earth observation data can be combined with advances in computing technologies to improve natural disaster forecasting. The ideas proposed in the study focus on cloud-based infrastructure, particularly semi-automated processing of large amounts of data.

More specific studies looked at how existing satellite data could be used Analyze the drought in South Africa And Study tectonic processes in Indonesia. Indonesia experiences frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In the case of one volcano – Mount Marabi – a large-scale eruption that could put 1.1 million people at risk highlights 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 track land movement over time.

In addition to helping predict disasters, satellites can also support response efforts. A discovery study is proposed A collection of satellites that combine Earth observation and satellite communications To provide responsive real-time service when a disaster strikes. Another one Merging public and private capacities Agree on consensus mechanisms to reduce confusion and increase confidence in key decision-making information related to natural disasters.

Monitoring marine debris

Simulated ocean surface currents were projected from ESA’s SKIM ex-candidate mission. The satellite will carry brand new technology to provide more accurate measurements.

About 13 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Most of these sink to the bottom of the ocean, but some float on the surface. From there, it washes up along coastlines, affecting not only wildlife but also coastal communities, tourism and the food chain.

Tracking this plastic from the Earth’s surface can be very difficult because it is impossible to see much of the surface at once. But remote sensing, including satellite remote sensing, could revolutionize our ability to track plastic waste, and Discovery & Prevention is supporting research that explores the best way to do so.

Measurements from space are already being used indirectly to capture the problem of marine debris, for example, maps of ocean currents can tell us where plastic is likely to go, so we can pinpoint large concentrations of plastic around the world. Like this The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

If found feasible, satellite measurements of marine plastic debris will be added to the existing suite of monitoring methods.

But there is still room to go. In 2019 ESA’s Discovery Program launched a call for ideas through the Open Space Discovery Platform (Rash) which generated a number of innovative ideas for using remote sensing to detect and monitor marine litter pollution.

Funded activities following this call for ideas explored how remote sensing, particularly with satellites, could help us detect and monitor ocean plastics. The full list can be found here. All the elements feeding this complex problem, from monitoring platforms (aircraft, drones, satellites) to specific sensors, were analyzed through simulations to predict the movement of debris through the ocean.

These activities laid the foundation for a thriving community developing European capacity in the new research field, showing what current technologies can do in different observational scenarios and what needs to be done to go further.

To help elementary school students learn how satellites can help detect and reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, ESA Discovery produced an animation that follows three pieces of plastic washed up on a beach.

Keeping an eye on ocean plastic pollution…from space!

Enables autonomous shipping

Space-based services to provide global ship tracking.

Just as driverless cars are the future of the automotive industry, captainless ships may be the future of the shipping industry. Automated shipping has the potential to significantly reduce transportation costs, increase safety, address anticipated workforce shortages, and improve working conditions.

But autonomous shipping relies on an accurate and constantly available navigation system. Discovery has supported research on how to improve existing satellite navigation systems to enable autonomous shipping, for example by combining them with ground-based systems to improve positioning accuracy.

One of the most difficult times for a ship’s captain is entering or leaving port. An exploratory study It also evaluated the feasibility of developing a system to monitor all ships in port to avoid collisions. The system will use ESA’s Galileo and EGNOS systems to calculate new routes for ships. A A similar study Maritime Adaptive GNSS focuses on improving the security concept to support seafarers especially near ports. Ships around the world use satellites to navigate; An exploratory study investigated The Impact of Space Weather on Navigation in the Arctic.

The International Maritime Organization Enables an anti-collision system for ships that uses data from ground-based sensors. Another ESA-backed study It examined how satellite data could be added to the system to fill gaps in terrestrial data and ensure global coverage.

The OSIP call for ideas launched in 2019 is solicited Solutions to enable port autonomous shipping. Five ideas were selected for further research, including a project to explore autonomous shipping in sea ice conditions, improve awareness of a ship’s surroundings, combine geo-observation and navigation data, improve navigation safety assessment, and develop one. A secure communication link between an autonomous ship and a space navigation system.

A map of global shipping based on satellite detection of signals sent by all ships to track maritime traffic. It is the maritime equivalent of air traffic control.

Last updated on 8 August 2023.

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