Martin Townend, who heads up UKspace’s Earth Observation committee, emphasises the need for and value of Earth Observation programmes adopting a collaborative approach with other missions, consequently benefiting from existing and future satellite technology.
Traditionally, Earth Observation (EO) space missions have been viewed in isolation, each having a specific purpose with its own objectives. However, the reality today is increasingly different, since most missions play an important role in a greater EO landscape of instruments, missions and associated infrastructure, all expanding our knowledge of the Earth and its atmosphere.
In today’s interconnected world, cooperation in space is ever more important and every mission needs to consider how it strategically fits into this wider EO community. We are now encouraged to establish such arrangements at the concept stage, through to the building of applications on what previously might have been considered an independent mission. Such collaboration is vital to developing and maintaining our global EO infrastructure (both in orbit and on the ground) in today’s complex global arena. The EU Copernicus programme is one good example of this approach, but is itself only part of a bigger picture.
Evidence of greater coordination
Aside from the constellations of increasing numbers of satellites working together to provide EO services, I offer a few (far from isolated) examples of such cross-mission cooperation.
Two UK industry teams today are leading the European Space Agency (ESA) studies for the FORUM (Far-infrared-Outgoing-Radiation Understanding and Monitoring) mission which is planned to fly in-formation with the MetOp Second Generation to benefit from the Infrared Atmosphere Sounding Interferometer (IASI). Measurements from the ESA Sentinel-5p (another recent UK-led mission) are to be used with those from the GHGSat IRIS satellite to build an enhanced methane emissions monitoring service.
Additionally, the UK is now developing TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial and Helio Studies) with ESA, a mission which will directly support many other EO activities. Some missions would not even be possible without the presence of others, such as passive bi-static radar or GNSS reflectometry programmes. This makes the most of an increasingly populated and mature network of EO satellites and data centres, enabling new combinations of products and providing enhanced data capability in terms of revisit frequency and accuracy, both at regional and city level.
Following historical precedence
I experienced an early example of this myself – when there were far fewer satellites than there are today – as a student wishing to demonstrate that an electron energy spectrum at the equator could be related to one at the pole. I compared measurements in the equatorial plane from ESA’s geostationary scientific satellite GEOS-1 by finding a companion in low Earth orbit from the US Defense Meterological Satellite Programme, obtaining the data I needed from the very helpful team at an impressively titled World Data Center (WDC).
A number of WDCs had been established during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) (1957/8), which at the time was an unprecedented global scientific cooperation across many Earth science disciplines. During the IGY, the very first satellites were launched (including Sputnik and Explorer 1) and a UK/NZ led expedition crossed the Antarctic, making a first return since the race to reach the pole over 40 years earlier. With echoes of our imminent return to the moon, and the world so much in need of examples of such global cooperation, the space industry can show the way whilst potentially deriving enormous scientific, societal and commercial benefits.
So when we think of our future EO missions, it must become second nature to think how such missions will work collectively and collaboratively, contributing to the global EO network, whilst also providing a legacy for future missions to unveil the most incredible information and enhance our understanding of our planet.