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May 2012 Issue

Despite Funding Struggles, Ocean-Sensing Satellites Have a Bright Future
By Samantha Lavender

Thus far, the primary focus of the satellite services industry has been research, with space agencies leading the way in infrastructure for spaceborne imagery. Attempts have been made to create a self-sustaining market, where end users pay for data, without significant success. The trending industry philosophy centers on the belief that satellite missions should be managed by end users rather than space agencies.

Space-based ocean observations have matured because of successful historical and present missions. In Europe, there is already the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites for weather forecasting and climate applications. In the U.S., there is NOAA and its National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service. The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, launched in October, is the bridge between NOAA’s Polar Operation Environmental Satellite and NASA’s Earth Observing System satellites, leading to the next-generation NOAA-operated Joint Polar Satellite System. But for this research to continue, operational users would have to value it enough to support launch and operational costs, which have been prohibitively expensive, with attempts to recoup the costs falling short.

For instance, the construction and launch of the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) was financed by a five-year data purchase agreement between NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp. (Dulles, Virginia). Scientifically, SeaWiFS has been a huge success, producing a consistent data set for more than 10 years. But, its commercial applications have been limited, for instance, to fishing, and the revenue stream insufficient for the satellite operation. SeaWiFS’s shortcomings were not due to a lack of applications but to a limited number of customers willing to pay for the data.

Conversely, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (Surrey, England) has created a successful business model by launching constellations of low-cost small satellites. This represents a satellite-building- focused approach where a lower cost mission can be launched for specific applications.

Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) is an EU-led initiative, operated and maintained by the European Commission (EC). The European Space Agency (ESA) leads the space component (i.e., Sentinel missions), and the European Environment Agency and member states lead the in-situ component. However, as part of budget cuts, the EC removed GMES from its 2014 to 2020 budget proposal. Discussions are taking place to resolve the funding shortfall as ESA has suggested that without an operational budget, the radar-focused Sentinel-1a mission, which was to launch this year to supply imagery for ocean- and land-monitoring services, including sea ice and oil spill mapping, will be put in storage. A decision needs to be made by June because the rocket launch must be reserved in advance.

GMES’s main users are policymakers and public authorities who will use the information to prepare environmental policies and legislation, with a focus on climate change. The GMES program has six themes: marine, land, atmosphere, emergency, security and climate change.

Downstream services under development will combine the information provided by GMES services with additional data (e.g., socioeconomic). These services are provided in a preoperational mode by consortia, including public and private organizations, selected by the EC through the EU Seventh Framework Programme.

MyOcean is the preoperational marine service project, with downstream offerings, including marine water quality information services, applied simulations and integrated modeling for the understanding of toxic and harmful algal blooms, a 30-year reanalysis of carbon fluxes and pools over Europe and the globe, coastal biomass observatory services, and multisensor satellite technologies for oil pollution monitoring and source identification. Depending on the long-term business model adopted by each commercial organization or space agency, the downstream services could be paid for directly or indirectly (e.g., advertising, which is a new funding approach).

Although the above examples are primarily from the U.S. and Europe, it should not be forgotten that there are other active satellite programs, such as those in Brazil, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. The Committee on Earth Observation Satellites also coordinates civil spaceborne Earth observations around the world. Research missions will continue to be launched as well; for example, ESA’s Earth Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity mission, and the Aquarius mission, launched by NASA and Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (Argentina’s space commission), which provide measurements of salinity distributions.

So what does the future hold? The U.K. has formed a Satellite Applications Catapult Centre because satellite services, including broadband, navigation and earth observation, are an important growth area for the U.K.’s economy. The recent U.K. Space Innovation and Growth Strategy stated that the U.K. should aim to grow its market share from 6 to 10 percent by 2030 and create 100,000 new high-value jobs. The satellite services industry looks to have a healthy future.

Whether the organization managing satellites is focused on space or the end user, it should oversee oceanographic missions in a way that successfully contributes to monitoring of the climate. Public and private entities should also remember that the scientific community must continue to play an important supporting role in satellite operations.



Dr. Samantha Lavender is the managing director of the U.K.-based company ARGANS Ltd., which works with Earth-observation data. She is also an honorary reader at Plymouth University, chair of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society and a council member of the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories. She has degrees in ocean science, with marine computer applications, and remote sensing.


2013:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.