Promise and Challenges in World-Class Satellite Remote Sensing

Figure 1

Shown here are Dr. Alberto Moreira, President, IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society; Dr. Kiyo Tomiyasu, recognized for being the first GRSS Member in the IEEE Heritage Circle; Dr. Karen St. Germain and Dr. Paul Smits, co-chairs of IGARSS 2010; Dr. John Vig, IEEE President 2009.

Figure 2

Yves-Louis Desnos, Head of R&D and Sr. Advisor for the Science, Applications and Future Technologies Dept. of ESA

Figure 3

Masanobu Shimada of the Japan Space Agency, JAXA’s Space Applications Directorate

Figure 4

Michael Freilich, Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division

Figure 5

EO Panel Moderator Shelby Tilford, consultant, and Karen St. Germain at the Welcome Reception

Figure 6

The A-Train is a series of spacecraft now circling the Earth. This international satellite constellation brings together a rich array of instruments to better understand Earth’s changing climate and environment. The A-Train affiliated organizations are NASA, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Research Associate
Secure World Foundation

At the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS, a symposium of GRSS, the Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society), international satellite remote sensing, and how it has become tied to helping solve a growing roster of Earth environmental and societal woes, took center stage. The 30th IGARSS meeting was held July 25-30 in Honolulu, Hawaii. This seminal gathering drew over 2,100 participants, with the significance of the symposium also reflected by a record number of abstract submissions. The event spotlighted the work of world-class scientists, engineers, and educators.

IGARSS, a symposium under the umbrella of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), covered a myriad of technical areas, from deciphering satellite data about Earth’s land, oceans, atmosphere and cryosphere to advanced image processing and design of sensors and missions. The challenges of data continuity and the formatting of satellite data were also discussed, as well as how best to push forward on an international basis for all nations to become better stewards of planet Earth.

See stories here and here about challenges of dealing with so much data, including that from CRS.

“In the year 2000, we speculated that remote sensing and geoscience would be spreading far beyond its technical home…to become a part of national and international policy-making and enforcement, land use planning and real-time disaster management, and education,” noted Karen St. Germain, General Co-Chair of IGARSS 2010, and NOAA’s Chief of the Data Products Division at the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Integrated Program Office. “The reality since then has far exceeded even our most optimistic predictions,” St. Germain added in her opening remarks at IGARSS 2010.

We are witnessing a silent revolution called ‘E-Science’ which has brought about a paradigm shift to the scientific method…where data is driving the foundation of new hypothesis.

–Paul Smits of the European Commission Joint Research Center

Casting his eye out over the next decade, Paul Smits of the European Commission Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, and General Co-Chair for IGARSS, noted, “Data management and applications have profoundly changed the way we do research and design, build, and test new systems and applications. In fact, we are witnessing a silent revolution called ‘E-Science’ which has brought about a paradigm shift to the scientific method…where data is driving the foundation of new hypothesis.” See Figure 1.

Movement for Change

Participation via a special webcast from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was a first-day highlight of the IGARSS meeting. Addressing participants were Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President, and Sherburne Abbott, OSTP’s Associate Director for Environment.

Earth observations are a priority for the White House, Abbott emphasized, with a clear commitment to strengthening the monitoring of our planet and to beefing up weather forecasting skills, essential elements of gauging environmental science and the work of public policy formulation. “We live in an unprecedented era of stress on our planet,” Abbott pointed out. “That stress stems from a combination of population growth, climate change, resource demand and the continuing development of coastal areas,” she said, noting that these tensions create unparalleled challenges for public health, economic well-being, natural resource management and national security. Echoing the challenges and opportunities ahead for Earth observations, Chopra flagged collaborative technologies and applications to help contribute to “a national movement for change.”

Open Access to Data

Another IGARSS 2010 special feature was a space agencies panel. Officials took the stage representing the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and NASA - all reviewing past and future national and international directions in Earth observations.

“ESA has 30 partner missions,” said Yves-Louis Desnos, Head of the Research and Development section and a Senior Advisor in the Science, Applications and Future Technologies Department. He updated the audience on ESA’s philosophy on free and open access to data. Making use of a suite of Earth observing missions now in orbit, data from these spacecraft are being distributed to 4,000 projects across the world. See Figure 2.

“No difference is made among public, commercial or scientific use of satellite data,” Desnos said. “We are going to launch 20 new satellites in the next 10 years,” he added, pointing out ESA’s dedication to satellite services for a diverse range of Earth observing applications, from farming to better monitoring of air quality. “There are so many results in the last 20 years,” the ESA official reported. Given the huge datasets now archived, including new applications of that data to come, what’s ahead? “A lot of data, a lot of surprise…a lot of new discovery,” Desnos responded in a follow-up session.

Masanobu Shimada of JAXA’s Space Applications Mission Directorate also advocated increased sharing of satellite remote sensing data. “Coordination is very important,” he said, but he also underscored the complexity of doing so due to differences in satellite capabilities. See Figure 3.

International Satellite Constellation

Global exchange of satellite data was backed by NASA’s Michael Freilich, Director of the Earth Science Division within the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate. “The key thing that we need to attack – and that the coordinating groups are working very hard on – is to allow for data to be freely, openly available, well characterized, and then analyzed together.”

Freilich warned against falling into the silo of analyzing measurements from individual missions, “…but rather combining and analyzing all of the relevant measurements to attack the problems that we want to solve, both scientific and societal.” Simply because multiple agencies are making similar measurements does not mean that there is unnecessary duplication, he remarked. See Figure 4.

Additionally, Freilich backed a coordination of Earth observing programs, “…so that we come up with an integrated program for the species…all of us that live on the planet.” This capacity is already resident, he pointed out, with the series of spacecraft now circling the Earth, dubbed the “A-Train.” This international satellite constellation brings together a rich array of instruments to better understand Earth’s changing climate and environment. The A-Train uses multi-sensor measurements structured along four themes: atmospheric composition and chemistry; aerosols, clouds, radiation, and the hydrological cycle; atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial components of the carbon cycle and ecosystem; and weather and other operational applications.

“The A-Train is international coordination with a low level of paperwork,” Freilich said. “There is science being done, measurements that are being acquired that are the result of rather substantial international coordination…much of it sort of from the working level up, unencumbered by management mischief.” See Figure 6.

Puzzle Pieces

Putting all the puzzle pieces together for a coordinated, multi-national program for Earth observing is not easy. “Sometimes, not all the pieces fit,” said Shelby Tilford, a noted consultant on Earth observations and space science remote sensing from Seneca, South Carolina. He is a former NASA Acting Assistant Administrator for Mission to Planet Earth and is internationally recognized as a key influence in establishing the study of Earth system science and in developing today’s global, space-based Earth observation capabilities. Moreover, Tilford led the establishment of a comprehensive, long-term national program to study variations in the Earth’s environment due to natural and human-induced changes.

Several factors are pulling together the resolve to move Earth remote sensing into a viable, long-term national and international pledge. A melding of budget and knowledge of political implications, as well as the personalities of those engaged in program development, are necessary to the effort, Tilford told Imaging Notes. “It all depends on so many different factors…the budget, the political situation, and the individuals,” Tilford said. Not only do all those cylinders have to be firing at the same time, “…they’ve also got to be in the same mode.”

Karen St. Germain, Co-Chair of the symposium, painted a high-tech picture of the CRS tools now available for community use: a blend of iPhones, GPS, the Internet, digital photography, and Google Earth – instruments that will allow for real-time uploading of data and “…worldwide collaboration in ways that we never dreamt they would.”

Tilford observed that so many other countries have improved in the last two decades, compared to where they were 20 years ago that, “I think it’s going to take an international consortium for measurements – both satellite remote sensing and in-situ – in order to make a real impact on understanding the long-term viability of the globe…and we still have issues of earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, hurricanes – those monster things.”

As for data-sharing among nations, Tilford said it has gotten better, “…but it is still not absolute.” Other areas that demand focused attention, he added, include improved data modeling and a far better handle on that planetary ingredient that makes up two-thirds of our world – the ocean, along with wind, cloud and precipitation measurements over water on a continuous basis. See Figure 5.

Global Vision for Local Action

The rapidly evolving power of Community Remote Sensing (CRS) was a singular conference topic recognized at this year’s IGARSS confab. To that end, Remote Sensing: Global Vision for Local Action served as a theme for the meeting.

Community remote sensing – or CRS for short – is a fresh field that combines remote sensing with citizen science, social networks, and crowd-sourcing to enhance the data obtained from traditional sources. It includes the collection, calibration, analysis, communication, and application of remotely sensed information by these community means. Several speakers and specially prepared posters detailed the emergence of these technologies, which are yielding an exciting new means to become better stewards of our planet.

“The energy in the citizen community out there…if you make it easy for them to do, they come to the table with information,” suggested St. Germain. She painted a high-tech picture of the CRS tools now available for community use: a blend of iPhones, GPS, the Internet, digital photography, and Google Earth – instruments that will allow for real-time uploading of data and “…worldwide collaboration in ways that we never dreamt they would.”

This entire CRS capability sparks a new approach to what it means to collect “truth data,” St. Germain said. “There’s a lot of power in harnessing the time and the energy and the interest of the community…in many cases leveraging the hobbies and things they want to do anyway.”

Indeed, the data provided from people and sensors “on the ground” will be instrumental in seeing a much fuller picture for projects around the world, from vehicles collecting road and weather data to disaster management for emergency responders – just to name two examples.

For examples of Community Remote Sensing, IGARSS 2010 provided the venue to detail several ongoing activities, such as:

  • Web Tools for Wheat Farming in Mexico’s Yaqui Valley
  • Virtual Disaster Viewer from ImageCat, Inc.
  • Fire Alert & Fire Risk Systems
  • Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Programs
  • Digital Earth Watch and Picture Post Network
  • A World Forest Observatory

An expansive list of these efforts can be found here.

What Next?

In the closing hours of IGARSS 2010, St. Germain turned her attention to what the next decade could look like, in terms of Earth observing capability. For one, she speculated that there could be a boom in the area of microsatellites. “Will we be moving away from big government-funded satellite programs,” St. Germain questioned, “with a lot of smaller satellites making observations? I think that most of the change in the last decade has really been driven by the private sector. So where are they going to go in the next 10 years?”

We are coming out of an era where scientists held tight their data and they owned that information, St. Germain said. “I don’t think we’re going to be living in that place anymore. Everyone will have access to the data and there will be no capital in holding onto it. What are the possibilities for moving forward?”

It was clear from the IGARSS gathering that the power of CRS and E-Science is, indeed, a paradigm shift. These tools enhance our ability to sharpen global policy-making and to take sensible and enforceable actions for the betterment of all.

There are unlimited possibilities with the massive amounts of remote sensing data now available at our finger tips, both assembled by professional entities and information gleaned by citizen-directed efforts. With CRS filling in key data gaps, everything on our planet can be mapped and analyzed, with the end result of saving lives, better preparing for natural calamities, and taking a firmer hand in assuring and sustaining our precious ecosystems around the world.

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