An Emerging Earth Observations Giant

By Dr. Ray Williamson

As is true for many readers of this magazine, my work occasionally takes me to interesting places in the world. This year, as an external faculty member of the International Space University (Strasbourg, France), Ihad the opportunity to spend a month in Beijing, China, teaching in this year's Summer Session Program, held at Beihang University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

This experience gave me the chance to visit various organizations and indiv-iduals in Beijing whose work is devoted to Earth observations research and development. That experience was a real eye-opener! Not only is China developing a wide variety of new Earth observation satellites, but it also has an extensive research and applications agenda.

Figure 1 Central part of Brazil, near the border of the Amazonia region (north in image). Dark red is forest; green and grey are bare soil and cropped areas (mainly soybean); bright red in the center of the image is the forest once cut, which is now regenerating. Image acquired July 14, 2007, by and courtesy of CCD/CBERS-2 (High Resolution Imaging Camera).

China's plans for a lunar mission have garnered all the press, especially in the West, but in my view the real story is in China's drive to develop Earth observations for practical problems of society. China will be pouring billions of yuan (7.5 yuan to the dollar) into Earth observations data collection and services over the next five years. This could place the country in the top tier of remote sensing countries.

While in Beijing, Iwas especially privileged to visit the new offices of CRESDA, the China Center for Resources Satellite Data and Application, which operates the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS). This facility hosts one of the three downlink stations in China for CBERSand also for several other satellite systems. CRESDAis the organization responsible for satellite system construction and operation, data distribution and applications, and collation of China's user requirements for any future planned CBERSsystems.

Guo Jianning, the center director, pointed out that CRESDA, like the U.S. Geological Survey office in Sioux Falls, North Dakota, is specifically set up to serve the data needs for all of China and of neighboring countries. Previously, some users complained that they were not able to obtain data readily because the relevant agencies were reluctant to share them with a different ministry. This arrangement will correct that problem.

After an initial experiment with charging a small amount for data, during which data sales were very low, China and Brazil now distribute lightly processed (Level 2) CBERSdata to Chinese and Brazilian users at no cost. Now, just as happened in the United States when USGSdrastically lowered the price of Landsat data in the 1990s, demand has shot up. Although the initial data from CBERS-1&2 were of relatively low quality, Chinese officials are satisfied that they have ironed out many of the creases in data quality and now produce data of reasonable quality for most applications.

By the time you read this, CBERS-2b, the next stage in the China-Brazil partnership, will have lifted into orbit, carrying both an improved version of the standard 20-m multispectral sensor on board earlier versions, and also a pointable 4-m panchromatic sensor, signaling the partnership's intent to enter the realm of higher resolution data collection.

CBERS-3 and CBERS-4 will follow in 2008 and 2010 with several new panchromatic and multispectral sensors, and in March 2008, China plans to launch three additional small Earth satellites. Termed the HJ-1A, B and C, these satellites will test the scientific and operational capabilities of newly developed hyperspectral, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar sensors.

CRESDA also reports having made significant progress in processing data and in establishing a long-term archive that will enable China to follow environmental and other trends over the years. As a sign of its maturity in processing satellite data, CRESDAhas developed its own processing system to replace the aging proprietary Hughes system that it bought from the United States some years ago.

I also visited the brand new offices of the China Academy of Sciences Center on Earth Observations and Digital Earth (CEODE). Led by Dr. Guo Huadong, one of the originators of the Digital Earth concept, this office consolidates several functions originally managed in other institutions.

Figure 2 CBERS-2B satellite being integrated and tested at Laboratory for Integration and Testing, at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. CBERS-2B is inside a radio-frequency anechoic chamber for electromagnetic tests before being sent back to China for launching, which was Sept. 19.

After its official opening in the fall, CEODE will manage three ground receiving stations from its Satellite Remote Sensing Center, an Airborne Remote Sensing Center, a Spatial Data Center, and the Laboratory of Digital Earth Sciences. Originally established in 1985, the Satellite Remote Sensing Center receives data from 16 foreign satellites, including Landsat, SPOT, Radarsat-1 and Envisat.

In another high point of my visit, I met with faculty members in the Institute of Remote Sensing and GISat Peking University in order to discuss potential cooperative activities. This institute is one of the premier university-based remote sensing institutions in China, and the faculty members there indicated intense interest in establishing cooperative programs with U.S. universities.

Finally, I also visited the National Satellite Meteorological Center of the China Meteorological Administration, which operates China's geosynchronous and polar-orbiting satellites. Here, too, were signs of a considerable drive to build newer, more capable satellite systems, including a new geo-bird capable of sampling fast-moving storm systems with high temporal resolution.

As one illustration of the maturity of its Earth observations program and the confidence Chinese officials have in their ability to deliver data to countries in need, in May, China joined the International Charter: Space and Natural Disasters, a loose-knit organization to provide data rapidly to disaster-affected areas around the world.

Overall, I found that officials in all the centers I visited were very interested in engaging in cooperative activities with organizations around the world. CRESDA, in particular, made a specific point of emphasizing that it now cooperates with many of China's surrounding countries, supplying data on the same free terms it extends to China's ministries. CRESDA officials have traveled to countries in Africa, South America, Australia, and Canada in an effort to find cooperative partners.

Because of these efforts, China is fast becoming one of the premier countries in applying Earth observations to practical problems and is reaching out around the world to find mutually beneficial partnerships.

Ray A. Williamson, PhD., is Imaging Notes editor, research professor in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University and Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation.

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