Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Figure 1: Satellite orbiting Earth. Source: Pexels
At Space4Good you often see us talking about impactful projects on Earth such as the agroforestry project in Indonesia with Dr Willie Smits, the removal of explosives in Syria with Halo Trust and Carter Centre, or the assessment of biomass and carbon for smallholder farmers with Rabobank. We are huge supporters of these 4good projects, and these impact leaders on the ground provide us with daily inspiration for the data-driven work we do. Fundamentally, however, Space4Good has an intrinsic connection to space and the galaxy around us given that one of our primary working tools is the data that is output by satellites. In this blog, we will share some trends and new developments within the space sector, from a space data angle.
Satellite data as video
Currently what we folks at Space4Good analyze are still images of different parts of the Earth with varying resolutions (temporal and spatial). We use them together with algorithms, spatial models, vector and raster operations to identify, monitor and assess a variety of use cases and problems in the area. Still, images have served their purpose well, but there are some use cases which would benefit from a continuous stream of data such as a video. Here you can think of satellites used for military/security operations, or for wildlife monitoring and traffic management, which are situations very closely dependent on movement and dynamics.
The Chinese space company ADA Space is trailing on this emerging demand and is mounting close to 200 satellites together with an artificial intelligence (AI) system to provide live streaming satellite imagery of the Earth. This doesn’t come without its problems, as video data feeds will seemingly multiply the amount of storage and processing costs and the time that will be incurred to handle this data. It is important to note, however, that being able to obtain this real-time data at an accessible cost is crucial for the acceleration of environmental monitoring and rapid responses to changes.
Satellites as a service
We are generally familiar with the concept of software as a service (SaaS). This was a huge turning point in the software industry as people didn't have the obligation to buy and install a full software package; they could now pay a subscription and obtain the software in a cloud version selectively. The same business model is now being applied to satellites, Satellite as a Service (SataaS). As their build and launch cost has considerably decreased, companies can now offer satellites to accomplish a specific task tailored to your needs.
“We have some customers that are essentially renting time on our satellite to run experiments.” CEO of CesiumAstro and Austin based startup says.
As the company Spacety puts it: “Satellite-as-a-Service (SataaS) enables people to have a satellite mission and get data from space without investing in satellites” and instead of benefiting from shared resources. Alternatively, they can offer spaces for launching your own satellite, or rideshare services. This makes a complete shift of the space industry and turns it more bottom-up, rather than in years where only the huge space agencies like NASA and ESA had a say in how and when to build and implement a satellite in space. We can expect this trend to lead to an increased number of satellites, which is already observable today!
Developments in the past two years have shown incredible changes in the space sector with records in the number of annually launched satellites. The commercial sector has taken up the Low Earth Orbit Satellites, and even NASA has yielded leadership to these within this space, by providing funding to these companies to spearhead these operations. Several of these initiatives are based on mega-constellations and aimed to bring internet to wide parts of the globe no matter the location or the “remoteness” of a locality. Starlink by SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Project Kuipier by Amazon are headliners within this arena, with 4,408 (potentially up to 42,00) and 3,236 satellites respectively. It is precisely because these satellites operate in low orbit that they require such a high number in order to cover the surface of the Earth. Their increasing number has already been met with concerns: from difficulties for astronomers’ observations to a higher risk of satellite collision.
Too much can be too much-space debris
In this day in age, space is the new frontier, and as we continue to perform space explorations, and new innovations we are already floating amidst a sea of space debris. From old discontinued satellites to discarded rockets there are around 27,000 pieces of orbital debris objects flying around us. This is creating a very fertile ground for an uncontrolled collision event, known as Keppler Syndrom, where when colliding one of these pieces of debris can achieve 10xbullet speed and collisional chain reactions not only putting human lives at risk but can actually be destructive to the operational systems.
Therefore there are not only startups working on predicting flight paths of space debris via neural networks such as Astroscale, but there are even initiatives by ESA working on self-destructing junk removal robots.
Yet again, we humans even treated space as a junkyard, and in parallel to cleaning up the Earth, attention must be paid to cleaning up space. “If we don’t start removing 5-10 objects per year for the next 100 years we’ll have an unstable environment” said Donald Kessler retired NASA Scientist. Just like the Earth, space has followed the “Tragedy of the Commons”, where no actor is willing to undertake the costs and no higher institution can force them to. Currently, the decision to authorize the launch of new satellites by companies is under the jurisdiction of the state in which they are located. Under these conditions, it is up to states to create a global system for authorization and monitoring and finally to update space law to include current issues.
These are some of the updates that are taking place in the space sector and are more related to the physical and data realms. Stay tuned for another blog where we will talk more about what is happening in the internet sphere and how this motivates and affects us.
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