Winter  >>  2005

Smallsat Remote

A New Driver in Space Development

Recently I took part in an international conference in Beijing on remote sensing in archaeological research and heritage preservation. Supported by several Chinese research organizations, the conference was hosted by the Joint Laboratory of Remote Sensing Archaeology, with participation from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Ministry of Education, and the National Bureau of Cultural Relics. The Institute of Remote Sensing Applications in the Chinese Academy of Sciences had a major role in organizing the event.

In addition to being extremely well-organized and managed, the conference illustrated the range of both archaeological and remote sensing studies that Chinese researchers are pursuing. It also demonstrated China’s sophistication in analyzing remotely sensed data for archaeological purposes. China has stepped out strongly with a firm world leadership in remote sensing for archaeology and heritage preservation, establishing offices devoted to the subject in most provinces, and providing training in the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications.

The favorable impression I gained concerning China’s recent progress in remote sensing was underscored when, following the conference, I was invited to visit the Institute to see the scope and depth of its work first hand. It is impressive, to say the least.

Located in Beijing near the site of the 2008 Olympic Stadium, the facility hosts several hundred researchers, students and staff in a setting overlooking the stadium venue, which is still a large hole in the ground. It is clear from the massive construction undertaken throughout Beijing that the Chinese intend to be ready with completed facilities in ample time for the 2008 event. They also seem to be working just as hard on their investment in remote sensing analysis and the development of new satellite systems.

In addition to the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications, China also supports several other government research institutes and numerous strong university programs in remote sensing. As its activities in the Joint Laboratory of Remote Sensing Archaeology indicate, it is attempting to bring remote sensing technology to bear on many aspects of its society.

China has a relatively long history in analyzing remotely sensed satellite data, having launched about 20 FSW-class recoverable panchromatic photographic cameras into orbit (reportedly 10-meter resolution) since the mid 1970s. In 1986, China opened a Landsat receiving station in Beijing. These capabilities were soon expanded to include the ability to collect SPOT, ERS, and Radarsat data. Today, you can find examples of nearly every kind of remotely sensed data available in China’s laboratories and in the papers its researchers publish. China also has a robust program in developing sensors for aircraft platforms, including multispectral, hyperspectral, and SAR sensors.

Until recently, Chinese data users relied solely on data from U.S., European and Japanese satellites for multispectral imagery, but they have an active program to develop sensors and satellite busses, largely through cooperative activities with other countries. In 1988 it entered into partnership with Brazil to develop the China-Brazil Earth Remote Sensing Satellite, CBERS-2, which China launched in 1999. Also in 1999 Tsinghua University students and faculty built and orbited a moderate resolution smallsat in cooperation with the U.K. Surrey Space Technology Laboratories. These experiences have increased China’s understanding of the development and operation of a digital, multispectral satellite, and of course have provided additional experience in processing and using such data for operational as well as for research purposes.

China’s remote sensing experts are innovative, and are determined to improve both their analytical skills with data and their ability to create new, indigenous remote sensing systems. They are continuing the partnership with Brazil with the projected launch of CYBERS-2B in 2006 and with a contribution to the four-member international smallsat Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) in spring 2005. China’s DMC satellite will carry the 32 m multispectral sensor common to all the DMC satellites, but also a 4-m pan sensor, putting China into the club of satellite owners who operate satellites capable of better than 5 m resolution. By 2010, Chinese space officials expect to have orbited an entirely new generation of satellites for meteorology, environmental monitoring, and ocean surveillance.

As an important sign of its ambition to enhance its international reputation in remote sensing, China assumed the chairmanship of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites in 2004 and in November hosted the 20 th Anniversary Symposium of the organization. This put China in an excellent position to highlight its accomplishments for other CEOS members throughout the world.

The United States needs to take note of China’s expanded interests and seek to engage the Chinese in cooperative applications research. There is ample scope for cooperation in remote sensing in environmental and resource management subjects far removed from the sensitive military issues that have strained relations between the two countries.

Such cooperation would deepen U.S. knowledge of China’s remote sensing efforts and give U.S. policymakers a better understanding of China’s intentions in space. Besides, China has made intense efforts to reach out to European countries, to the European Union, and the European Space Agency in technical cooperation in a variety of space-related technologies.

Despite its recent progress, China still has a lot to do to catch up with its near neighbors, India and Japan in remote sensing capabilities. It lags far behind them not only in developing its own remote sensing systems but also in making use of the data to benefit its citizenry. Nevertheless, if it can maintain its current momentum, China will be able to catch up and perhaps surpass them within a decade or so.


Ray A. Williamson is a Research Professor in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University. He is co-editor of Commercial Observation Satellites: At the Leading Edge of Global Transparency, ed., with John C. Baker and Kevin O’Connell (RAND and ASPRS: 2001).

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