Earth observations from space are the richest source of information about the Earth with the power to inform decisions and activities across as agriculture, mining, community safety and healthcare.
Australia is a significant user of Earth Observations from Space (EOS). The CRCSI-commissioned report, The Value of Earth Observations from Space to Australia (2015, ACIL Allen Consulting) found that EOS returns approximately A$5.3 billion to the Australian economy every year, and the use of EOS-services generated around 9,000 new jobs in 2015. The report predicts growth of up to A$8 billion, with more than 15,000 employed as a direct result of EOS services by 2025.
As Australia’s understanding of the capability of earth observing satellites has matured, so has our use of EOS. Consequently, our dependency on EOS as a critical data source has increased. The soon-to-be published, Australian Government Earth Observation Data Requirements to 2025 report (2016, CRCSI for the Commonwealth Government) identified 140 government programs that employ EOS in activities such as: weather forecasting; disaster mitigation and management; climate and water cycle modelling; land use and land cover monitoring; forestry; carbon accounting; mapping inland and estuarine water quality; coastal habitats; seagrass and coral reefs; mineral mapping; hydrology; cartography and cadastral mapping; sea surface temperature; and biodiversity monitoring.
Data continuity risks
The critical nature of this data, and the risks to the continuity of its supply, was explored in detail in another CRCSI-commissioned report, the Risks of Data Supply of Earth Observations from Space for Australia (2015, Symbios Communications). The report found that in contrast to 2010, when the outlook for Australia’s continued access to EOS seemed rather grim due to the failure of Landsat-5 and the absence of long-term European EOS programs, the picture in 2015 is far more positive.
The successful launch of Landsat-8 in 2014, and more recently Himawari-8, Sentinel-1A and Sentinel-2A, together with the adoption of a free and open data policy by the European Union, and the negotiation of a European Union-Australian Government strategic alliance, mean that Australia’s access to EOS is not only assured, but that the main challenge for the future is how to deal with the vast amounts of data that will be available.
In 2011, the Continuity of Earth Observations from Space — Operational Requirements for Lands, Coasts and Oceans to 2015 (CEODA-Ops) report (2011, Geoscience Australia) projected the annual storage volume required for all data types, including three levels of processing, would be approximately 1.2 PB per year by 2015. However, updated analysis suggests that volumes of around 1 PB per year for unprocessed data alone, with a cumulative storage total of approximately 8.5 PB by 2025 can be expected. The additional volume required for data processing (3 levels) and back-up (2 copies) brings this cumulative total to approximately 42.5 PB by 2025.
Alongside continued engagement to ensure data continuity, Australia must plan for the vastly increased volumes of EOS expected to be available by 2025. New missions such as Himiwari-8 and Copernicus represent significant challenges to Australia’s existing infrastructure and data management capabilities. Annual data storage volumes in the petabyte range are already required and will only grow as new sensors and missions come online in the lead up to 2025.
The need of the hour
Urgent action is required to put in place arrangements and systems for effective and efficient data management and analysis in order to realize the benefits of this huge volume of data. Ongoing action is required to lower the technical barriers to the application of the data, making it easier for industry to take full advantage of data that has traditionally been usable only by a very narrow group of technical experts. Australia must also continue to undertake the research and development to ensure the potential of the data is translated into the products and services it makes possible.
Despite Australia’s dependence on EOS, Australia does not operate a single earth observing satellite, and relies entirely on data from satellites operated by foreign governments and the private sector. Even if Australia were to launch a number of its own missions to address specific priorities, it would still depend heavily on data from the international community to provide as complete a picture of the Earth, and how it is changing, as is required to support current, and future, products and services.
Australia’s international engagement has increased significantly in recent years. The Australian Government has established strategic partnerships with the European Union, United States Government and the Japanese Government. State governments, universities, institutes and the private sector have also increased engagement and collaboration with international partners, reflecting the ‘global’ nature of satellite earth observation and the potential for work done in Australia to be translated internationally.
The Australian Government, through CSIRO, with support from Bureau of Meteorology and GeoScience Australia, is also the 2016 Chair of the international Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS). CEOS brings together 35 space agencies, operating over 130 missions, to improve coordination for global benefit. A key goal of CEOS is to make it easier for EOS to be exploited by making it easier to use and combine data from different satellites. This ultimately makes it easier for Australian researchers to collaborate with overseas partners, for Australian government agencies to work with counterparts on big regional and global challenges, and most importantly create an environment where it is easier for Australian businesses to ‘export’ EOS-based products and services to other markets.