Continuity of Earth Observation Data for Australia: Research and Development Dependencies to 2020
Australia is one of the largest users worldwide, by volume and variety, of Earth Observations from Space (EOS). These observations underpin weather forecasting, a large variety of operational services for land, oceans and atmosphere, as well as the research and development (R&D) activities that generate new applications and benefits for the nation. These activities are critically reliant on data from more than 40 satellites, all of which are both owned and operated by foreign agencies.
The primary sources of EOS data for Australian researchers are U.S. satellites from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are rapidly emerging as key future suppliers, with future data sources also likely to include Germany, India, China, Korea, Italy, and France.
In mid-2011, the Australian Space Policy Unit (SPU) engaged Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to identify and study key dependencies and future priorities for EOS data through a survey of the Australian EO R&D community. CSIRO tasked Symbios Communications to lead the survey and analysis effort. The survey and report are known as the “CEODA-R&D report”, and follow a companion report focused on continuity of EO data for Australian operational activities, called CEODA-Ops, which also was completed in 2011 by Geoscience Australia. Both reports have looked at Australian data requirements to 2015, and have provided an assessment of the expected availability beyond that.
The majority of research projects surveyed by CEODA-R&D support current operational EO programs in the Australian federal and state governments – more than 60 operational programs in all. These activities support improved weather forecasting and public safety warnings, improved environmental monitoring and informed climate policy, effective surveillance and defense of territorial waters, improved disaster prediction and response, informed resource exploration and management, and improved agricultural and water management capabilities. These services also provide real societal benefits and are highly dependant on foreign controlled data streams — some of which have very real risks to their continuity of supply.
Surveying the Australian Earth Observation R&D Community
The survey team canvassed nearly 200 Australian R&D projects requiring EO data from research teams within CSIRO, Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), universities, and federal and state government agencies.
From these 200 projects, 56 from 31 organizations were selected as a representative sample of the wide variety of EO-related R&D activities in Australia. These 56 projects were surveyed in more detail regarding their current and future EO data requirements, their current and future data supply preferences, and their linkages to national and international programs, both research and operational.
Priority Data Types
The projects studied in detail in this survey demonstrated great ingenuity and diversity in their data access arrangements, collectively using 59 different satellite EO instruments that are considered essential to research. Of these 59 instruments, 17 are used uniquely by the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research (CAWCR) and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) to support their National Weather Program (NWP) and application research projects.
Nine broadly classified “Priority Data Types” were identified, based upon their criticality in support of research outcomes, and their widespread usage across multiple projects. These are (in decreasing order of usage):
• Low Resolution Optical
• Medium Resolution Optical
• High Resolution Optical
• SAR (C-, L- and X-band)
• Passive Microwave Radiometry;
• Radar Altimetry
• Hyperspectral Imagery
• Ocean Color.
While also used extensively in routine operational programs across Australian government agencies, the Low and Medium Resolution Optical data are also by far the most widely used data types in the R&D sector, being used by around half of the surveyed projects. SAR data represent the third most widely used data type, and their use is expected to grow as data streams become more accessible and continuous.
Researchers assessed that their needs for these Priority Data Types will not change significantly over the next five years, although a broadening of the available satellite EO instrument suite and increased use of new EO data sources with higher spatial and spectral resolutions are widely anticipated. Therefore, significant increases in the variety of data streams, and in particular in data volumes, are envisioned in future.
The survey results highlighted the tendency of the R&D community to historically use “whatever free data are available,” provided it offers suitable data quality, continuity, coverage and access arrangements. The purchase of large volumes of commercial EO data is financially unsustainable for the vast majority of projects surveyed.
Awareness of future international EO satellite program plans, data contingency planning, radio-frequency protection issues, and the need to strengthen international partnerships with additional supplier agencies, varied significantly among individual researchers but was generally low, with few researchers following global developments closely. This suggests that the R&D community may need to be better informed of future opportunities for continuity of supply, and before national priorities can be established.
Continuity Risks to Earth Observing Workhorses
Of the top four Priority Data Types, there is one current data gap for L-band SAR, and a significant risk of a data gap for Medium Resolution Optical data. As discussed in the CEODA-Ops report, numerous operational national programs and legislated monitoring activities could be delayed or otherwise affected by loss of L-band SAR data, Landsat and MODIS data in particular, due to the significant cost and effort associated with changing data processing protocols and negotiating data access, as programs transition to alternative data sources.
Landsat data continuity had been dependent on the Landsat-5 satellite, until it reached end of its life in November 2011, and the relative utility of a malfunctioning Landsat-7 satellite, and is the subject of some anxiety in relevant user communities. NASA’s replacement mission, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM, Landsat-8), is not expected to be operational until mid-2013. Beyond 2013, it is anticipated that the European Space Agency/European Commission’s (ESA/ EC) Sentinel-2 mission (part of Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security/GMES satellite program) also will provide ample Medium Resolution Optical data.
Also of note, the use of MODIS data (in part via free access to more than 40 derived products) is very widespread in Australian research and government programs. This presents very significant financial and technical continuity risks should this sensor degrade, and when it is no longer operational. This will force the R&D and operations sectors to transition to other sensors and information products derived from new sensors such as VIIRS or Sentinel-3.
A gap in new acquisitions of L-band SAR data has existed since the failure of Japan’s ALOS mission in March 2011. This has significantly impacted the research community, including those supporting routine national and international forest carbon, vegetation mapping and disaster monitoring programs using this type of radar imaging.
International Relationships Critical
The current financial crises in the U.S. and Europe could have significant implications for continuity of EOS data supply to Australia. NASA and NOAA have been the most important suppliers of satellite data in support of Australian R&D needs in recent decades. However, the future supply prospects for the Priority Data Types identified suggest that a larger number of additional suppliers and data types will be important to Australia in the future.
In the near term, Australia’s relationship with ESA could potentially grow to one of equal importance for the provision of EOS data for Australian R&D needs, provided that data access terms improve, and that the current financial crisis does not affect ESA’s launch schedule or ground segment capacities. Based on technical specifications, ESA (and in some cases the EC) was identified in this survey as a key future supplier for as many as seven Priority Data Types, based on data from the GMES program and the five series of Sentinel satellite missions.
It was recognized that Australian participation in regional and global EOS coordination bodies, such as CEOS, GEO, CGMS, and APRSAF, would help secure current and future data access to critical EO datasets. Negotiation of new data agreements with emerging suppliers of public good EO data also may go a long way to ensuring supply. More active export of Australia’s EOS data calibration and analysis expertise, via bilateral or multilateral science collaborations or development assistance agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, would build goodwill and secure better access to various EOS data streams provided by space agencies in the region (primarily Japan, India, China, Thailand and Korea).
The full CEODA-R&D report, including the Executive Summary, a full set of findings and recommendations, and annexes can be downloaded from here.
Dr. Kimberley C. Clayfield, CSIRO is executive manager of Space Sciences and Technology within the CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science Division. She has a background in mechanical engineering and space policy, and is a member of Engineers Australia’s National Committee on Space Engineering and the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Space Science.
Dr. A. Alexander Held, CSIRO, is a remote sensing expert at the CSIRO with a background in land cover remote sensing applications, and hyper spectral imaging. He is currently the director of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) AusCover Facility, co-chair of Technical Committee at the International Spaceborne Imaging Spectroscopy Group, a co-lead of the Group on Earth Observation’s (GEO) Forest Carbon Tracking (FCT) Task, and a member of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Space Science.
Stephen Ward, Symbios Communications Pty Ltd, is the founder and principal of Symbios Communications. He has worked in the area of international coordination of space programs, global environment and climate change since 1990, is the author of the Earth Observation Handbook, and has supported many clients worldwide in space policy studies and space-related projects.
George Dyke, Symbios Communications Pty Ltd, is a senior consultant at Symbios Communications. He has a background in mechanical engineering and has worked since 2004 in support of many international remote sensing organizations and projects including the Group on Earth Observation’s (GEO) Forest Carbon Tracking (FCT) task and the Committee on Earth Observations (CEOS), and is a contributing author to the Earth Observation Handbook.
Barbara Harrison is a founding partner at Digital Concepts. She has been involved with remote sensing since the early 1980s, initially as part of the development team for CSIRO’s microBRIAN image processing system, is the senior author of the tertiary texts “Introduction to Remotely Sensed Data” and “Introduction to Image Processing,” and has contributed to numerous remote sensing projects including “Current Use of Remote Sensing to Map and Monitor Fire in Australia” (University of Wollongong, 2010) and CEODA-Ops.