Remote Sensing for Remote Areas

Report from the Space Conference of the Americas in Mexico

Figure 1 Popocatepetl Volcano image taken with TerraSAR-X High resolution SpotLight, recorded on May 10, 2012. The ground resolution is 3m. Credit: Astrium Services / Infoterra GmbH.

, is editor of Imaging Notes and Senior Advisor of the Secure World Foundation, an organization devoted to the promotion of cooperative approaches to space security.


What do Chagas disease, volcanic eruptions, health care to isolated rural communities, and agricultural and ocean food production have in common? Though they seem to be totally disparate, independent problems, they are closely linked by the fact that they can all be tackled by space technology.

All these subjects were explored in an April 2012 three-day forum hosted by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City in its role as the Pro Tempore

Secretariat of the Space Conference of the Americas: the Mexican Space Agency (AEM), the Regional Center for Science and Technology Education for Latin America, and the Caribbean (CRECTEALC) and Secure World Foundation (SWF). These organizations teamed up to bring an international set of participants from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the European Union, Mexico, Portugal, the United States, and Venezuela to explore the utility of space technology for tackling many of the pressing human issues faced by Mexico and other countries of Latin America. The Space Conference of the Americas was also very much a coming-out party for the emerging Mexican Space Agency, which was just created in July 2010, and demonstrated the wide scope of space activities that are already being pursued in Mexico in universities and science institutes. Having a single entity to coordinate its efforts will, among other things, improve Mexico’s ability to participate in international cooperative programs, including its plans to develop a remote sensing satellite with the German Space Agency, DLR, focused on detecting wildfires in the wilderness areas of Mexico.

Chagas Disease

The forum demonstrated the value of interdisciplinary solutions to troubling human problems. Take the case of Chagas disease, for example. Chagas is a debilitating, parasitic, vector-borne disease carried by blood-sucking insects, Triatoma infestans and related triatomine species, often referred to as “kissing bugs.” These bugs, which feed on the blood of mammals, most commonly appear at night, where they crawl from hiding places to stick their needle-like proboscis into their victims’ skin, sucking blood and, if they are infected with Chagas, inadvertently but surely infecting the victim. Chagas affects the nervous system, the digestive system and the heart. Because the disease often lies dormant in the victims’ system for months or years, leaving them asymptomatic, they are not even aware they carry the disease, making treatment of a large population of infected individuals very difficult.

The disease is endemic in certain tropical areas where heat and moisture contribute to a very cozy environment for fostering population growth of the host insects. Chagas occurs mostly in Latin America, where it may infect as many as 18 million people. It can also spread through skin contact, mucus or feces of infected triatomines, blood transfusion, and congenitally from a mother to her fetus. As a result of global travel, the disease can now be found in Spain, France, and the United States, countries that experience significant immigration from countries where Chagas is endemic. At this time, there is no vaccine for Chagas, and the available parasitic treatments have serious side effects. Combatting the debilitating disease relies largely on limiting exposure to the bug that carries it and introducing improved sanitation into endemic areas.

Here is where space technology can help. First, by identifying geographic areas where Chagas-carrying bugs are likely to exist, imagery from remote sensing satellites, combined with high accuracy positions obtained from GPS receivers of areas of known infection, or where the right climatological and landscape conditions exist for breeding grounds for the bugs, can help public health officials direct their efforts more effectively to areas of need.

Second, broadband satellite Internet and TV service can provide preventive information and health services to these areas, many of which are quite remote from urban centers. Third, satellite services provide a means to deliver high quality medical services remotely to areas lacking qualified medical personnel. Finally, information collected from the infected areas and delivered to medical research experts in urban centers helps in the long term process of finding more effective means of controlling Chagas and limiting its spread.

Participants from Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, each expert in at least one of these technologies, presented their research, experience, and future plans at the forum. They also developed a joint public declaration that indicated their intentions to work together in a regional effort to eradicate Chagas as a regional health threat by providing tele-health services, education, and research on a possible cure. Experts from Argentina have since joined the team.


The forum also provided the catalyst for other follow-on international cooperative programs using space technologies, including one to investigate the recent worrying activity of the volcano Popocatepetl near Mexico City. See Figure 1 . In the months leading up to the forum, Popo, as it is known colloquially, periodically began spewing forth volcanic ash, and just a few days before the forum began, it sent a huge plume into the atmosphere, liberally coating the houses, streets, and vehicles in nearby Puebla and other cities southeast of Mexico City. The daily volcanic activity has continued for over two months.

Over the past decade, the volcano’s dome within the crater has grown from increased ash and lava flow, and related seismic activity has increased, amplifying concerns of Mexico’s Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres (CENAPRED) for the potential danger to the region from the volcano. As a result, officials from CENAPRED, CRECTEALC, the National Institute for Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE), and DLR met to discuss the possibility of using satellite radar images to monitor the growth of Popo’s dome.

Those discussions have led to the acquisition by DLR of images from Astrium’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X to monitor the volcano. SAR instrumentation can pierce through the smoke and ash often above the volcano, producing high-resolution images that can be compared to display changes in the volcano’s form and structure. U.S. volcano experts are also working with CENAPRED on the volcano’s recent activity.

The forum also emphasized the role of space policy and law in space sustainability, SWF’s primary theme. It also explored the responsibility of emerging space States in adhering to the international space treaties, agreements, and U.N. resolutions in order to maintain the long term ability to use outer space constructively for peaceful purposes.

Finally, much has been written recently about the so-called Global South, those countries lying south of the Equator, or in some definitions south of the Tropic of Cancer, many of which face enormous and similar issues of poverty, lack of access to resources, and modest or slow development. This forum was a tiny but significant step in providing the thinking needed to tackle some of the problems faced by the Global South, for as participant Dr. Alex Wuenche of Brazil noted, “Latin America is the Global South.” To make progress in space for human and environmental security, the countries of Latin America need to cooperate more effectively.


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