Data at the scale, frequency, and quality available with Copernicus via free and open data policy constitutes a fundamental paradigm change in earth observation, thinks Josef Aschbacher, Director of EO Programs, European Space Agency.
Which are the top three trends that are impacting the earth observation sector?
First and foremost, there is a need to continue building high-precision satellites. There will always be need for them even with the proliferation of small satellite constellations. Secondly, the combination of big and small satellites for me is a major potential which has not yet been tapped. We either use big satellites or small satellites but very rarely a combination or an integrated dataset. There is a lot to be done in this sphere and this is something I would like to work on.
Third, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, machine learning and deep learning are deeply disrupting the IT world and earth observation will benefit from it. With the humongous volume of data being generated by satellites today, we would need even more automated processes like AI and machine learning to extract information and intelligence in a timely manner.
I see these three factors shaping the earth observation sector in the next five to ten years.
ESA for years has continued its commitment to realize cutting-edge satellite missions to advance scientific understanding of our planet. Can you briefly take us through the various earth observation programs of the agency?
ESA’s earth observation programs have mainly three lines of activities. The first one is the science missions, called Earth Explorers. The second one is the Copernicus program, where the European Space Agency builds the Sentinel missions for the European Commission with European Union funding. The third one is meteorological, wherein the space agency develops polar-orbiting and geostationary meteorological satellites.
While the Earth Explorer satellites are geared up to address some of the intriguing science questions deploying best technologies, with the Copernicus, ESA is building the largest earth observation satellite system in the world — six families of Sentinels are being defined, developed and put into orbit. In the first round, 20 Sentinels are in the process of being launched.
ESA is also working with European Commission to advise on new policy requirements for issues such as Climate Change, CO2 monitoring, concerns around Arctic melting, food security in Africa and so on.
In addition to the meteorological segment, ESA is also striving to continuously improve the quality of weather forecasts. So in total, we have 14 satellites in orbit and 28 in development, which is quite a large portfolio. In fact, it is the largest portfolio that ESA has ever had.
Copernicus is said to be a gamechanger in the earth observation industry. Could you elaborate on this?
Copernicus is indeed a gamechanger. Data availability at this scale, frequency, and quality constitutes a fundamental paradigm change in earth observation. Today, we are producing 15 terabytes of data every day and on an average every product is downloaded about 10 times. Therefore, 150 terabytes per data are delivered to users from the central data hub. In addition we have other distributors of data who are consuming data from different bureau sites.
Also, since Copernicus data is free and open for everyone; it really disrupts and brings data to every single citizen in the world.
Landsat has been there for a long time and is an extremely important data source. How would you rate the two?
We cannot replace Landsat with Copernicus. In fact the programs complement each other. The world has been benefitting from Landsat data for the past 40 years now. It is really a unique and extremely valuable data source that has provided knowledge and understanding of the planet.
The Sentinel 2 satellites within Copernicus is similar to Landsat in accordance to sensors, with some variations like different numbers of channels and the resolutions. With the Sentinels 2 twins in orbit, we can increase the coverage provided by Landsat, and further with 13 channels increase the accuracy of the measurements taken with a 10-meter resolution in the best channels.
So, while Landsat has built up a long history and provides data globally for many applications, Sentinel is going to massively cover the planet regularly every six days. The combination of both will prove to be an extremely good application. In fact, I am working very closely with NASA and USGS in cross-calibrating Sentinel 2 data with Landsat data so that users can use either of them, whichever satellite just happens to fly over.
All of ESA’s data is freely available. Where is your business case in it?
ESA is a public entity and the activities are funded by governments, which is the taxpayers’ money. Our job is to develop new technologies and satellites. In case of Copernicus, we do it together with the European Union through public funding.
The goal is not to make money by selling data. Since we are not a commercial company, we do not need to create income. Our aim is to provide a data source which people can use in order to create more businesses afterwards.
This will also ensure that various ministers and politicians will find this system useful and give us money for continuation and development of new capacities.
However, there is a lot of economic value or economic benefit that can be derived from use of satellite data. For example, investment in Copernicus is multiplied by a factor of between 10 and 20 in terms of feedback or return to the European economy. Therefore, I think it is a good investment.
ESA is known for its engagement with start-ups and incubation. Have you done any kind of research or study into data given versus jobs created?
NewSpace, as the name suggests, is a new phenomena. At the moment it has a very diverse landscape and ecosystem. It is difficult to see how this develops and what are the potential advantages and disadvantages. Hence it is difficult to predict its future right now.
However, what is certain is that it is a strong emerging domain and major IT companies outside the space domain. For instance, SAP and Amazon are engaging themselves by investing their own private money into getting access to Sentinel data and creating information out of it. Therefore this is not a space agency finding other space partners. I think it is the best proof that the concept is interesting from a commercial point of view.
The NewSpace sector has already developed in the US, while it is still developing in Europe. What are the lessons that EU needs to take from US on this?
The US progressed very fast in the NewSpace domain, and this was triggered by the companies in the Silicon Valley. There are two factors—one is speed and another is access to money, which is characterizing these NewSpace companies in Silicon Valley.
On our part, I want to give European companies a chance to develop themselves in the NewSpace domain. As one of the initiatives towards this, I have established a laboratory where new companies can try out innovation and disruptive activities.
However, we also don’t want to disturb the commercial market too much, but rather support them within our mandate and capabilities. We certainly want to put programs on their feet to help these NewSpace companies to grow in Europe.
There is an ongoing tension between the UK and the European Union over Galileo following Brexit. Does this also impact ESA’s earth observation program?
Firstly, even after Brexit the UK remains a member of ESA. Second, there is a small difference between Copernicus and Galileo. In Copernicus, the space component is co-funded by ESA member states (including UK) and European Union, while in Galileo the majority funding came from the European Union. Therefore, UK as an important member will hopefully continue to support Copernicus in the ESA context.
We hope that UK is joining the EU part of the Copernicus program and therefore continues to fund or co-fund the Copernicus program also through the Brussels’ element. If that does not happen then we have contingencies which we are already have been discussing.
However, I think a big issue is also the security aspect in Galileo, which complicates the discussions. In Copernicus you do not have security issues because it is not considered a security restricted program. Therefore, the issue of the UK participation is an issue of industrial procurement and industrial participation. I am confident that we can find a good solution on this.
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