Tag Archives: satellites

Why don’t satellites fall down from the sky?

Image via Pixabay.

Satellites are able to stay in Earth’s orbit thanks to a perfect interplay of forces between gravity and their velocity. The satellite’s tendency to escape into space is canceled out by Earth’s gravitational pull so that it is in perfect balance. This is the same principle that explains how natural satellites, such as the moon, become locked in a planet’s orbit.

But some very smart people had to run some very complicated math to design the perfect satellite launch. If the satellite moves too fast, it escapes into space. Too slow and it is destined to crash into the atmosphere.

With the right distance, speed, and trajectory, an object can defy Earth’s gravitational pull for quite a long time. In fact, gravity — the same force that is trying to drag these down to the surface — is a vital force in keeping satellites orbiting around our planet.

And to make it entertaining, we’re going to start with rollercoasters.

Perpetually falling

If you’ve ever been on a rollercoaster, you’ll know that strange sensation you get in your gut around bends or hills. Physically speaking, that sensation is produced by inertia; although the cart is changing directions, your body is resisting this shift. You’re strapped in safely to the cart, but your internal organs have a bit more leeway to move. So, for a few moments, they essentially keep moving on the old trajectory, while the rest of your body is on a new one.

This process is summarized neatly in the first law of motion: an object, either moving in a straight line or at rest, will maintain that state until acted upon by an external force. “External force” here can mean a great many things, from air resistance to gravity to you hitting a flying ball with a bat.

Artificial and natural satellites rely on this law to stay above the clouds. Since there is no air resistance in space, once a body gets moving, there’s virtually nothing to slow it down. It doesn’t lose kinetic energy (momentum), so it can keep moving forever.

The satellites we build today get their energy from the rockets that bring them to orbit. They do have internal fuel supplies and thrusters, but these aren’t used to maintain speed. They’re for maneuvers such as avoiding debris or shifting orbits. Rockets impart the satellites they carry with quite a lot of energy, as they need to travel at speeds of at least 17,600 mph (28,330 km/h) to be able to escape Earth’s gravity. After separation from the satellite, this leaves enough energy to keep that satellite in orbit around the Earth for several decades, even a few centuries.

Still, the purpose of a satellite is to stay closeby (relatively speaking) so it can beam our social media posts all over the world. But from what we’ve seen so far, shouldn’t they just travel into space forever? Yes. But there’s one other force at play here — gravity. While momentum keeps satellites moving, gravity is what keeps them in our orbit.

If you fill a bucket with water and spin it really fast, you’ll see that the water won’t pour out of it. It’s being pushed against the bottom of the bucket by inertia (in this case, centrifugal force), but that bucket and your arm work against the force. They even out in the end: the water can’t move through the bucket’s bottom, it can’t escape over the lip, either, so it kind of stays in one place.

For satellites, the Earth’s gravity acts as the arm and bucket in the above example. One really simple way to understand the process is to visualize the satellite as a rocket that’s always going forward, tied with a very long chain to the center of our planet — it will just go around in circles.

What’s important here is to get the distance right. First off, you want your satellite to be outside of the planet’s atmosphere, so as to avoid air drag and keep a constant speed. But you don’t want to be too far away, because the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the squared distance between two objects. So if you double the distance between a satellite and the Earth, gravity would only pull on it one-quarter as strongly. If you triple it, it would only be one-ninth of the force. In other words, put a satellite too close to Earth and it will fall. Put it too far away, and it escapes into space.

In essence, what engineers try to do when putting a satellite in orbit is to make it fall forever. We put it up high enough that air friction is almost zero (ideally, zero). Then we push it really fast in one direction. Finally, we rely on the Earth’s gravity to pull it down while it is moving forward, so the resulting movement is a circle. Because it’s moving forward and the planet is round, it’s essentially gaining altitude constantly. But, since it’s also falling at the same time, it’s losing altitude constantly. The sweet spot is to have it escape into space just as fast as it’s falling down to Earth, all the time.

If the math is done just right and the deployment phase goes properly, these two cancel each other out, and we get an orbiting satellite. In practice, it never goes quite perfectly, which is why these devices are fitted with fuel and thrusters so they can perform tiny adjustments to their direction of motion or altitude and keep them in orbit.

A good example of what would happen in the absence of these thrusters is the Moon. Our trusty and distinctive nighttime companion is not on a stable orbit — it’s slowly escaping Earth’s gravitational pull. Due to the specifics of how the Earth’s gravitational field interacts with the Moon, our planet is ever-so-slowly accelerating it into a higher orbit. Continuing with the above example, it’s making the ‘escape into space’ force a tad more powerful than the ‘falling down to Earth’ force. As a consequence, the Moon will probably break out of orbit with Earth in the future, but we’re talking billions of years here.

Alternatively, we have (had?) the Mir space station as an example. This Russian installation ended its mission in March 2001 and was brought to a lower orbit — it was ‘deorbited‘. Here, air friction steadily slowed it down. Because of this, gravity started gaining the upper hand and Mir eventually burned up in the atmosphere while spinning around the globe, closer and closer to the surface.

The physics of how bodies in space interact is always fascinating, at least it is to me, and generally has a weird quirk to it that spices every scenario up. The idea that something can keep falling forever without actually coming closer to the ground certainly is quirky, and it fascinated me ever since I first came upon it. Later, sci-fi would bring me to concepts such as gravitational slingshots, which are very similar to what we’ve discussed here, but they actually help you go to space faster. Cool.

Our discussion so far makes this whole process sound simple, and in theory, it is. But very many bright people had to crunch some extremely complicated math to make it possible, and many still do that, in order to keep satellites orbiting over our heads. As much as falling forever sounds like magic, it’s built on countless hours of intellectual work and, in this day and age, on some very powerful computers running calculations around the clock. 

It's getting crowded up there. A plot of space debris around the Earth. (NASA)

Scientists spot space debris in daylight, helping satellites ‘social distance’

It’s really getting crowded up there! The immediate area around Earth is cluttered with space debris, with recent estimates suggesting almost 4,000 man-made satellites in a near-Earth orbit, only one-third of which are currently operational. These non-operational units are subject to leakage, fragmentation and even explosions — further littering the immediate region around our planet. On top of this is a further population of near 20,000 known space debris objects. 

If humanity is going to continue to exploit the space immediately surrounding the Earth measures need to be taken to avoid this space debris. Collisions between this space junk and operating satellites aren’t just costly and damaging, they also create more debris. Now researchers at the University of Bern have made a breakthrough that just might help satellites avoid just collisions. 

The Bern team used the geodesic laser at Optical Ground Station and Geodynamics Observatory Zimmerwald to spot space debris in the daylight. (© Universität Bern / Université de Bern / University of Bern, AIUB)
The Bern team used the geodesic laser at Optical Ground Station and Geodynamics Observatory Zimmerwald to spot space debris in the daylight. (© Universität Bern / Université de Bern / University of Bern, AIUB)

The Bern team is the first in the world to successfully determine the distance from Earth to a piece of space junk in daylight. The researchers performed the feat on June 24th using a geodesic laser fired from Swiss Optical Ground Station and Geodynamics Observatory Zimmerwald. The achievement opens up the possibility of spotting space debris during the day, this means that possible collisions between satellites and space debris can be identified early and mitigation strategies such as evasive manoeuvres can be implemented earlier. 

Being Evasive

Spotting space debris during the day should help prevent events such as the collision that occurred between the operational communications satellite Iridium 33 and the obsolete Cosmos 2251 communications satellite in 2009. Occurring at an altitude of 800 km over Siberia the impact at 11.7 km/s created a cloud of over 2000 pieces of debris — each larger than 10 cm in diameter. Within a matter of months, this cloud of debris had spread across a wide area, and it has been a threat to operational satellites ever since. 

Simulations performed at Lawrence Livermore National Lab on the Testbed Environment for Space Situational Awareness (TESSA) show the collision between Iridium 33 and the Cosmos 2251 communications satellite and the space debris it created. (Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

But one positive did come out of the event, it made both scientists and politicians wake-up to the fact that the problem of space debris can no longer be ignored.

In fact, the risk of collision with space junk in certain orbits around the Earth is so great, that evasive manoeuvres are commonplace. The ESA alone receives thousands of collision warnings for each satellite in its fleet per year! This leads to satellites performing dozens of evasive acts each year. But, it’s vitally important to accurately assess when evasive action is actually needed as they can be costly and time-consuming to perform. 

“The problem of so-called space debris — disused artificial objects in space — took on a new dimension,” says Professor Thomas Schildknecht, head of the Zimmerwald Observatory and deputy director of the Astronomical Institute at the University of Bern. “Unfortunately, the orbits of these disused satellites, launcher upper stages or fragments of collisions and explosions are not known with sufficient accuracy.”

Thus, as well as reducing collision risk, daytime observations of space debris could mean that unnecessary evasive action is avoided. There could be another benefit to early debris detection too. 

Many researchers are currently investigating the possibility of missions to clear space debris. One such example is the work of Antônio Delson Conceição de Jesus and Gabriel Luiz F. Santos, both from the State University of Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil, recently published in the journal EPJ Special Topics. The pair modelled the complex rendezvous manoeuvres that would be required to bring a ‘tug vehicle’ into contact with space junk. Better positioning debris clusters could assist these efforts considerably.

Fun with Lasers

Currently, the position of space debris can only be estimated with a precision of around a few hundred metres, but the team from Bern believe that using the satellite laser ranging method they employed to make their daylight measurement, this margin of error can be slashed down to just a few meters, a massive improvement in accuracy. 

“We have been using the technology at the Zimmerwald Observatory for years to measure objects equipped with special laser retroreflector,” Schildknecht says, adding that these measurements were also previously only possible to make at night. “Only a few observatories worldwide have succeeded in determining distances to space debris using special, powerful lasers to date.”

The Zimmerwald Laser and Astrometry Telescope ZIMLAT in Zimmerwald, which is used for distance measurement to space debris objects. (© Universität Bern / Université de Bern / University of Bern, AIUB)
Example of a “string of pearls” of photons reflected by the target debris object in the “sea of sky background photos”. (© Universität Bern / Université de Bern / University of Bern, AIUB)

Despite providing more accurate measurements, geodetic laser systems such as the one at the Zimmerwald observatory employed by the researchers are actually at least one order of magnitude less powerful than specialized space debris lasers. Additionally, detecting individual photons diffusely reflected by space debris amid the sea of daylight photons is no mean feat.

These problems were overcome by the use of highly sensitive scientific CMOS camera with real-time image processing to actively track the space junk, and a real-time digital filter to detect the photons reflected by the object.

“The possibility of observing during the day allows for the number of measures to be multiplied. There is a whole network of stations with geodetic lasers, which could in future help build up a highly precise space debris orbit catalogue,” Schildknecht concludes. “More accurate orbits will be essential in future to avoid collisions and improve safety and sustainability in space.”

Orbital ‘littering’ fee might solve our space junk problem

A computer-generated image representing space debris as could be seen from high Earth orbit. Credit: NASA.

Where humans go, trash isn’t too far behind — and that includes space, too. In fact, space junk is a growing problem that may make it impossible to launch things beyond Earth’s atmosphere if we don’t do something about it. A new study is proposing an innovative solution: charge a fee for every satellite put into orbit.

An orbital space tax

Since we began sending satellites into space in the late 1950s, human activity has been leaving behind trash with every launch. Every major world power has contributed to this growing space junk problem.

NASA is monitoring some of the biggest pieces of debris out there, including approximately 20,000 objects as big or bigger than a baseball and 50,000 objects as big as a marble. Smaller pieces of debris, however, are virtually undetectable right now, but NASA estimates there are millions of objects that are 50 microns to 1 millimeter in diameter.

That might not seem like such a big deal but consider that these tiny pieces of debris travel at 17,500 miles per hour. At these velocities, even an object with a tiny mass can exert a powerful kinetic energy capable of significant damage upon impact.

Below you can see what a tiny speck of space debris did to the super-reinforced glass of the International Space Station’s Cupola — if you had any doubt this isn’t serious business. Now, imagine the kind of damage a larger object can do. A person on Earth even got hit by a piece of space debris in 1997.

This isn’t a crack on a car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” ESA wrote. Credit: ESA.

Most proposals for decluttering Earth’s low-orbit have focused on technology, such as giant collecting nets, janitorial satellites with harpoons, even Earth-based giant lasers.

The Tragedy of the Commons (in space)

Matthew Burgess is not a space engineer but rather an economist — yet his take on cleaning up Earth’s low-orbit may be more impactful than any fancy technology.

In a new study, Burgess, who is an economist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues suggest charging satellite operators and other agents involved in launching stuff into orbit an annual fee.

The reasoning behind this idea is that space is a common resource and, despite its name, it is not limitless — not in the amount of junk we can safely dispose of in orbit, at least. This is similar to how we (should) tax carbon in order to account for the negative externalities of fossil fuels in the environment.

“Space is a common resource, but companies aren’t accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch,” Burgess, who is also an assistant professor in Environmental Studies and an affiliated faculty member in Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a press release. “We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators.”

According to the study’s results, an annual fee of $235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040.

The tax on orbital use for satellites would be calculated to reflect the cost to the industry of putting another satellite into orbit. This includes the project costs of additional collision risk and space debris production.

“To us as environmental economists, the situation in orbit very much resembles other common resources we’re familiar with (e.g. fisheries, traffic, atmospheric carbon). With these resources, overexploitation typically occurred (or continues to occur) until incentive-based policies have been put into place. When we looked at the policy conversation, we saw a lot of discussion about technical and managerial fixes — things like debris removal nets or harpoons, and discussions of keep-out zones or deorbit guidelines. We saw very little discussion considering what an incentive-based solution would look like. Given our backgrounds, we wanted to contribute that piece to the conversation,” Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College and the paper’s lead author, told ZME Science in an e-mail.

Such fees would increase over time in order to account for the rising value of cleaner orbits — scarcity begets value, after all.

The model used by the researchers suggests that an optimal fee would increase at a rate of 14% per year, reaching $235,000 per satellite per year by 2040.

“Economic data was one of the big challenges. There’s a lot of physical data on the objects in orbit — where the object is, when it was launched, who launched it, when it’s expected to decay, etc. — but there’s a lot less data at the per-object level on how much revenue individual satellites produce and how much they individually cost. We used highly aggregated sector-level economic data as a result,” Rao said.

Burgess and Rao compared the forecasted impact of orbital-use fees under various scenarios to business as usual (no fees to operate in space) and technological fixes like janitorial satellites and lasers.

The results suggest that an orbital fee introduces an economic incentive that forces operators to think twice before they add another satellite in orbit unless it really adds value.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, these kinds of fees might actually help the satellite industry grow from $600 billion under a business-as-usual scenario to around $3 trillion. According to the researchers, the massive uptake in valuation can be pinned to reduced collisions and collision-related costs.

However, like other forms of taxes, an orbital-use fee would only work if all countries and agents launching satellites would participate in the program. There are now nearly a dozen countries that perform satellite launches and about 30 that own satellites but rely on others to launch them.

But if one country refuses to participate, the whole scheme is dismantled, similar to how a tax haven attracts corporations, leaving their home countries with no revenue.

“There are many ways the orbital-use fees could be collected and used. In the paper, we outline one possible model based on the Vessel Day Scheme (an agreement which regulates use of a tuna fishery between a group of nations in the Pacific, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement). In this model, the fees would be internationally harmonized and nations with satellite operators would collect fees from the operators subject to their laws. The revenues could then be used as the collecting nation sees fit,” Rao said.

“So for example, if company A was launching from the US, the US could collect the internationally-harmonized orbital-use fees from company A and spend it domestically, invest it in debris cleanup R&D, refund it to US taxpayers, or find some other use for it. The nice thing about these kinds of fees (“Pigouvian taxes”) is that their effectiveness doesn’t hinge on what the revenue is used for,” he added.

As such, there are many challenges to this approach but this doesn’t make it any less appealing. Frankly, we need to hit space junk with everything we’ve got; otherwise, we might risk never being able to safely leave this planet and reach our full potential as a space-faring species.

“In other sectors, addressing the Tragedy of the Commons has often been a game of catch-up with substantial social costs. But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate,” Burgess said.

“Orbit use might seem like an “out there” topic, but satellites are actually very integrated in our daily lives. GPS, remote sensing, and satellite telecommunications power a number of consumer products, and that’s before we talk about government uses, responses to natural disasters, and new innovations that are just emerging. We all have a vested interest in making sure the environment where these valuable assets live stays usable, now and moving forward,” Rao wrote in an e-mail.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Astronomers concerned over Elon Musk’s plans to launch 42,000 satellites

Astronomers are expressing concerns over the plans of Elon Musk’s Space X to launch up to 42,000 satellites in a mega-constellation called Starlink. So far only 122 have been deployed — and astronomers are already reporting unwanted impacts.

With over 2,000 now active and orbiting Earth, satellites are key to modern life. Telecommunication satellites support mobile phone signals and mobile internet. As 5G services start to be deployed, a new set of satellites with the proper technology will need to be launched.

A recent incident with SpaceX raised concerns among astronomers over the consequences of Elon Musk’s plan. The 122 satellites launched by Starlink are brighter than most of the stars visible to the human eye and also move faster through the sky. This leaves a trail that can pollute astronomer’s data.

A group of 19 satellites of Starlink passed on November 18th near the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory’s site in Chile. It lasted for five minutes and it affected an image taken by the Dark Energy Camera (DECam). The image shows the satellite train entering into the camera’s vision.

“Wow!! I am in shock,” wrote CTIO astronomer Clara Martinez-Vazquez on Twitter.


Satellites are usually dark in the night sky, but sunlight can reach them right after the Sun goes down or early in the morning when the sky is black, making them visible through telescopes of binoculars.

The number of Starlink satellites already launched represents only 0.3% of those proposed, so the consequences for astronomers could be worst. Looking for faint objects, which is the main goal of observatories seeking objects that could harm Earth, would be hindered, astronomers claim.

Starlink’s satellites are located in elevations of over 1,000 km, which means their orbital decay would take millennia. This can create problems with other types of satellites. For example, in September, a satellite used for Earth observation was close to crashing with a Starlink satellite. “A full constellation of Starlink satellites will likely mean the end of Earth-based microwave-radio telescopes able to scan the heavens for faint radio objects,” Swinburne University astronomer Alan Duffy told ScienceAlert in May after the first launch of Starlink satellites.

The criticism of astronomers to Starlink’s plans was dismissed by Elon Musk and SpaceX, who claimed their satellites would have a minor impact on astronomy. They said SpaceX is working on reducing the albedo of the satellites and that Starlink would adjust the satellites on-demand for astronomical experiments.

Cees Bassa from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy claims that up to 140 satellites of Starlink will be visible all times from observatories on Earth. But the difficulties could be overcome if the companies implemented some changes, according to Bassa.

Bassa suggested placing a moratorium on the launch of new satellites of Starlink until doing modifications, as well as also deorbiting the current satellites. He also said the company should redesign the satellites to reduce their reflectivity and should provide real-time information on their trajectory plans.

European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT)

Copernicus: the treasure in the sky helping science and the climate with free and open data

 European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT)

Artist’s impression of Sentinel-3. Credit: European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).

Due to human activity, most notably through rampant air pollution and urban expansion, humans have pushed the Earth system into a state that’s outside the range of the last half million years or so. Studying and quantifying the Earth’s system is thus of the utmost importance — and this is no easy task because it’s all ridiculously complex. Luckily, the technology and tools we’ve come to develop are also sophisticated, helping us rise to the challenge of understanding the Earth system’s past states, monitoring present conditions in real time, and predicting how the system could look like in the future. This is where Copernicus, ‘Europe’s eye on Earth’, comes in.

Our eye on Earth

Managed and coordinated by the European Commission, Copernicus is one of the most important scientific organizations in the world you’ve likely never heard about. Previously known as the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), the Copernicus Program integrates satellite and in-situ data with modeling to provide user-focused information services in six key areas; land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency management, and security.

To monitor the planet, Copernicus uses thousands of sensors in land, sea, and air, but also six families of satellites known as ‘Sentinels,’ each with a different focus. For instance, Sentinel-1 is used for radar imaging and can capture high-resolution shots of the planet’s surface even through the cover of cloud. This is particularly important for monitoring crop health, for instance, providing value to farmers who can now time the application of fertilizers or irrigation with the growth stages of crops on a massive scale. The Sentile-3 mission, on the other hand, is focused on marine studies and uses its highly sensitive instruments to measure sea surface topography, sea and land surface temperature, and ocean.

In total, the Copernicus Program operates more than three dozen satellites across its Sentinel and contributing missions with more soon to follow. The most recent one, Sentinel-2B, was launched on 7 March at 2:49 CET from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana completing the Sentinel-2 mission.

All of this data, like surface temperature readings accurate to 0.1 degrees Celsius, get stored and processed at supercomputing facilities such as the one I visited at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (EMCWF) headquarters in Reading, UK.  Thanks to this high-resolution multi-spectral imaging data, the EMCWF now operates the most complex and reliable weather forecast model in the world with a quasi-uniform distribution of 9 km-wide grid boxes.

Credit: ECMWF

“By 2025 we want to be able to run an ensemble of analyses and forecasts at a grid spacing of 5 km, requiring predictions and data processing for billions of grid boxes in less than a second,” said ECMWF scientist Nils Wedi in a statement.

And all of this data is free and open

Credit: Fact Sheet Improving Crop Yields, Catapult, UK.

Credit: Fact Sheet Improving Crop Yields, Catapult, UK.

Anyone can register for free and gain access to almost everything Copernicus services records about the Earth system through the web portals operated by the various Copernicus service lines.

If you’re a climate scientist looking to refine a model with higher resolution data or new entry points, you might want to download greenhouse gas fluxes or solar radiation, for instance. Governments can tap into the European Forest Fire Information System or the European Flood Awareness System to better prepare for emergency response, thus saving lives and millions in property damage. A biologist might find the Marine Environment Monitoring Service very useful for assessing fisheries, water quality (acidity, temperature, etc.) or pollution.

Emissions from the devastating 2015 Southeast Asia haze, which some have called a ‘crime against humanity’, were monitored by CAMS scientists who found the fires contributed to the largest single-year rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration ever measured. Such readings are important for climate change models that need to assess the impact of forest fires. For instance, the Indonesian haze contributed to 77% of the global total fire emissions of CO2.

“C3S provide access to both high-quality climate data and parameter designed to address the needs of specific socio-economic sectors. Such information can then be used by national met services, regional authorities, intermediaries, consultants of even end user to develop tailored services. For example C3S will provide information on future river flow and its water quality. This information can then be used to develop environmental policies as well as to provide critical inputs into the business plan for the construction of a new hydropower plant. Similar examples can be made for renewable energy, agriculture, urban-area management and pricing of insurance policy,” Dr. Carlo Buontempo, Manager of Sectoral Information System, ECMWF Copernicus Climate Change Service, said for ZME Science.

The same atmospheric data, however, are being used by other organizations to provide citizens and businesses with real-time air quality data. One startup from Israel called BreezoMeter is making good use of the petabytes of CAMS data by shaping it in a manner that is easily understood by policy makers, municipalities and citizens alike.  Precise air quality measurements are shown as colour-coded maps, charts, and even as health recommendations. For instance, right now BreezoMeter says Paris’ city center has a fair air quality index of 65 out of 100 which makes it “OK to go out and enjoy a stroll” but Beijing has 17 out of 100 which BreezoMeter says “This is the kind of poor air quality that the doctors warned you about. Don’t go outside now.”

“CAMS data is a highly valuable set of data for us. But, in order to provide up to the street level resolution worldwide air quality data, we are adding to our proprietary dispersion algorithm other sources of information, such as air quality monitoring stations, meteorological data, traffic and more. The CAMS has unique pollution data in many places that it is hard to find other sources and this is one of its big advantages,” Ziv Lautman, BreezoMeter co-founder, told me.

“The importance of Copernicus data to the scientific community and the private industry is enormous. CAMS was a main contributor to one of our crucial steps going global. without it, it would have take us lots of time to get to where we are now,” he added.

Here’s Andrew, a farmer from Allington U.K., describing how his family is using applied satellite imagery for precision agriculture.

These are just a couple of example of how innovative startups and projects are making good use of Copernicus Services open data but, momentarily, we’re just scratching the surface.

“There is huge predicted growth in the global space sector with the largest percentage of that growth thought to come from downstream services.  I think that Copernicus data and services could be a huge contributor to that growth, particularly acting as reduced threshold and therefore access point to the exploitation of and benefit from satellite technologies.  It is therefore potentially a huge enabler,” Daniel Wicks, Earth Observation Specialist at Satellite Applications Catapult, told me.

Lots of data — it’s time to make it actionable!

Copernicus services generate so much stream of data that it’s the third largest data provider in the world, generating eight petabytes annually. But all of this data means nothing if you can’t make sense of it which can be a huge challenge.

“This is a truly amazing amount of data and  whilst standard tools exists to deal with it effectively these have not been designed to be used by a the end users and thus are not fit for purpose. One of the challenges we face here is how to transform the Petabyte of data we have into the few kilobytes that a decision-maker really needs without loosing the traceability of what has been done,” Buontempo told me.

You can right away tell this kind of effort can be very expensive. Indeed, the European Commission’s budget for Copernicus 2014 to 2020 is €4.3bn, the bulk going to maintaining current satellites and construction/launch of new Sentinels. But the EU has a lot of faith in Copernicus, not only because it’s a huge enabler of cutting-edge science but also because it has the potential to make a return of investment from downstream services. As more Sentinels are added to the Copernicus fleet, the benefits will only continue to compound.

“There are increasing numbers of satellites with broadening imaging capability, but this should be seen as a key enabler.  For example, higher frequency coverage (multiple images a day) from an increased number of satellites means we can build new applications that weren’t possible before from infrequent observations (one image a week), e.g. monitoring people movement.  The same is true of higher resolution imagery (25-30cm versus 10-20m).  An example here might be the ability to monitor city planning, e.g. how many new extensions to houses have been built?  In order to make this data more usable by a wider audience, there is a challenge around converting the raw data into analytics, information, modelling, and visualisation etc,” Wicks said.

These are value added products onto which people can develop new applications and services.  The innovation comes from new techniques and tools for activities such as data fusion and storage.  The trend is now in service provision and some of the key relevant technologies that will be game changing are AI & machine learning, web technologies (e.g. linked data , natural language processing), cloud platforms (hosting the computer next to the data), spatial-temporal data infrastructures (on the fly data analysis and trend analysis over decades to provide insight), consumerisation of technology (user centred design, digital apps), 3D visualisation,” he added.

Despite all of Copernicus data is free and open to everyone, not just EU entities, it’s estimated Copernicus will accrue €13.5 bn up to 2020 not counting non-monetary benefits. Some 48,000 jobs tied to Copernicus services are expected to be created in the next fifteen years as new organizations built around Copernicus data services will continue to appear.

Copernicus data is available for free and on an open basis. Data can be used by governments and public authorities to develop environmental legislation and policies or to take critical decisions in the event of an emergency, such as a natural disaster or a humanitarian crisis. In addition this data supports ‘value-added’ services tailored to specific public or commercial needs, resulting in new business opportunities for the private sector. The Copernicus data and services are already contributing to 10% of the revenues of Earth Observation service suppliers in Europe. And these benefits are expected to grow at 31% per year.” Hugo Zunker, Policy Officer, European Commission, said in a statement for the press.

It’s amazing how much can be achieved by making key data and information freely available to the public. Build it and they will come. In 2008, the US Geological Survey (USGS) released all of its Landsat satellite images collected over forty years openly and for free. NASA also has a huge treasure trove of open data up for grabs complete with APIs, open sourced software written by the community and of course high-resolution readings of planet Earth, the sun, quasars, black holes etc.

“There is a growing pressure from society in freeing up the data and open it access to the people. Copernicus is certainly an important example in this effort towards this,” Buontempo said.

As outlined several times in this article, the main challenge is transforming petabytes of raw data into actionable information that key decision makers can use to their advantage. This is a huge challenge. However, it can also be transformed into a rewarding opportunity for developers.

The ball is in your court!

“We are already seeing around the globe the impacts of a changing climate. Land and sea temperatures are rising along with sea-levels, while the world’s sea-ice extent, glacier volume and snow cover are decreasing; rainfall patterns are changing and climate-related extremes such as heatwaves, floods and droughts are increasing in frequency and intensity for many regions. The future impact of climate change will depend on the effort we make now, in part achieved by better sharing of climate knowledge and information,” Director of ECMWF’s Copernicus Services Juan Garcés de Marcilla said.

All of 2015’s weather, in a stunning 4K time-lapse video.

The European Meteorological Satellite Organization (EUMETSAT) in collaboration with the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released a time-lapse 4K video of the weather of 2015 — and it’s awesome.

Image from youtube video.

We’ve had our share of wild weather last year — the drought in California, hurricane Patricia or the staggering dust storms in the Middle East among the more extreme examples — most of it fueled by shifting climate patterns. But for all the destruction it can unleash, weather is usually a gentle mistress. Thanks to EUMETSAT, you can now relive the terrifying events as well as the pleasant days that don’t make it to the headlines, in an amazing high-definition video from space.

Using geostationary satellite imagery compiled from EUMETSAT, JMA and NOAA satelites, the video brings 365 days of data in one stunning reel of 2015’s weather.

The northern hemisphere set a record for the most major tropical cyclones to form in a year, so keep an eye on the tropics throughout the video. Around the 6:30 mark, Hurricane Joaquin, the strongest Atlantic hurricane of the year, starts to form. This category 4 storm battered the Bahamas and the East Coast before raging all the way across the Atlantic into the U.K. At the 6:55 mark, Hurricane Patricia hits Mexico’s west coast before heading inland into Texas.

Beyond these destructive events the wider-reaching weather systems of our planet can be observed. During the Amazonian rainy season, lasting from December through April, clouds pop up over the region almost daily — but as the dry season sets in, they become far less common. Weather patterns roll over continents and oceans — a storm in the Southeastern U.S. today becomes next week’s rain in Spain.

EUMETSAT improved the image quality since last year, updating to a 4K resolution for incredible detail. This is possible due to the better quality satellites that both Japan and EUMETSAT launched into orbit last year. As NOAA plans to launch their own brand-new high resolution geostationary satellite this year, we can look forward to even sharper images in future videos.

Well, that and improved forecasts — but I’m always sold on eye candy.

First Space Fueling Station used for servicing satellites by 2015

A lot of critics are raving towards the end of the space exploration age, as aerospace budgets get ever thinner, shuttle programs get retired or the fact that the lunar surface has remained unscratched by human hand for years and years. Where governments might fail, however, one can always put faith in the ever much better organized and efficient private sector, with more and more companies becoming interested in commercial space flights and exploration.

An innovative idea which I salute for its utility and business plan alike is the space fueling station concept developed by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). The Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle, as it is dubbed, will fly in geosynchronous orbit (22,369 miles above the Earth), where it can reach several key commercial and government satellites for various tasks be it refueling, maintenance or repositioning.

The SIS would truly be a very practical device, however its most vital role would be re-fueling. Most space satellites operate relying on solar power, however for self-repositioning or orbital change they need a more powerful fuel, like hydrazine. Without it, there is the risk of the satellite becoming space junk or getting burned to smithereens while entering the planet’s atmosphere.

The station upon its launch, scheduled by MDA sometime in 2015, will have enough hydrazine to power about a dozen satellites, after which it will itself need to get refueled. A good analogy would be that of the service tanker that fuels a gas station.

The communications satellite company Intelsat, which has the most geosynchronous satellites, will be the first client.

Besides the tank obviously equipped for refueling, the SIS will also carry a robotic arm and a tool set for various maintenance duties. The robotic arm will be very useful for docking satellites in the refueling part or for re-orbiting satellites. It could even serve as a tow satellite, moving other spacecraft into a high-orbit graveyard zone or bringing them low enough to reenter the atmosphere and break up.

Watch the video below provided by MDA for a graphically animated explanation of the SIS concept.

“On-orbit refueling and servicing is a game-changing innovation,” said Thierry Guillemin, Chief Technical Officer of Intelsat. “It is important for Intelsat, managing the largest commercial satellite fleet, to support technologies and tools that expand our capabilities in space. We intend to implement this technology as a tool in fleet management that will improve operational reliability, increase the return on our on-orbit assets, ensure good stewardship of the space environment and deliver this increased flexibility to our government customers as well.”

“We are very pleased to have Intelsat, the world’s leading provider of fixed satellite services, as the anchor customer for our new SIS offering and our partner in accessing the US government market,” said Dan Friedmann, President and CEO of MDA. “There is a clear need to service the world’s space infrastructure, both commercial and government. The combination of MDA’s unparalleled and proven space servicing capabilities and Intelsat’s commercial and government market presence is a good way to get this new service off the ground.”

MDA and Intelsat will start building the satellite in the next six months, and the first space refueling will take place about four years from now.