Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsMy name's Debbie Clifford, and I'm an Environmental Data Consultant at the Institute for Environmental Analytics. Satellites are a really important data source for environmental data analytics because they monitor the environment over years and continuously, and they give us a global picture, which we can't really get from any other kind of data source. So the first Earth Observation satellites were launched in the 1960s. This was the Nimbus programme from NASA. Nimbus is Latin for cloud, and they were trying to measure some of these things that seem invisible in the atmosphere, like atmospheric temperature or the amount of water vapour. And these new global measurements really revolutionised weather forecasting and gave us much more accurate forecasts.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 secondsWe've continued to make observations of all sorts of parts of our environment ever since-- the atmosphere, the oceans, the land surface, and the cryosphere. Different satellites will take pictures of the planet in different ways. You can have Earth Observation from what's called a geostationary satellite, and that's looking at the same point on the planet all the time. So you get very high resolution measurements in time, but not such high resolution in space because the satellite has to be a long way away to stay in that orbit. To get very high resolution measurements in space, very detailed, the satellite will be orbiting in a polar orbit. So it will cross the poles every day.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 secondsAnd that really depends on the design of the satellite and the different quantity that it's trying to measure on the ground. As an example, the largest Earth Observation satellite ever launched was the European Space Agency's Envisat platform. And this satellite was the size of a double decker bus, and it had nine separate instruments on it recording all sorts of measurements from rainfall to sea surface temperature to atmospheric composition. In the end, it delivered data for about 10 years, which was twice as long it was originally planned to be operational for. And all that data added up to about a petabyte. The new satellites from the European Space Agency is the Sentinel series.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 secondsThe Sentinel 2 satellites will produce around 800 terabytes of data every year. So where Envisat produced a petabyte by over 10 years, with our newest satellites, we're getting almost that amount every single year. So we can use Earth Observation in all sorts of parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, not just the visible that we see with our eyes. So we can use, for instance, a comparison between the red part of the spectrum and the near infrared to tell us about how efficiently plants are photosynthesising. So this tells you about the health of your crops or your vegetation.

Skip to 2 minutes and 54 secondsWe can also use infrared to understand the temperature of the land surface or the sea surface, which is really important for weather forecasting and climate modelling, but also for understanding more human things like the urban heat island and how that might change over time as we all live more in cities. At the end of a satellite's life, you need to have a plan for how you're going to deal with it. So sometimes, the satellite will be pushed into what's called a junk orbit, where all the dead satellites go to orbit the planet forever. Sometimes, the satellite will be pushed down into the atmosphere, where it will burn up.

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 secondsBut the very oldest satellites had no plan for how they were going to be de-orbited or junked, so they continue to fly around in their orbits. And we're not really sure yet what we're going to do with them.

Observing the Earth from space

Watch Debbie Clifford, Environmental Data Consultant at the IEA, explain why satellites are such an important source of data.

With satellites we can, in principle, monitor the whole planet all the time. About half of the operational satellites currently in orbit are for communications (eg for satellite TV, broadband) and there are around 100 navigation satellites, including those providing the GPS signal for your car or phone. There are also more than 350 satellites currently providing observations of our planet for mapping and cartography, or for feeding information into weather forecasting systems. These monitor various environmental conditions such as the health of crops and the amount of sea ice.

Google Earth (and the satellite imagery in Google maps) is a great introduction to the fascinating and beautiful information we can obtain from satellites, such as the varied features, colours and shapes of the land surface. As scientists we can do much more quantitative and detailed analysis of these images, for example, measuring the temperature and composition of different layers of the atmosphere.

The term Earth Observation (EO) can refer to any measurements collected about the Earth, but it’s most commonly used to refer to large-scale environmental measurements made with satellites. Satellites give us a global view of the planet, and are usually taking measurements continuously over many years. Although a measurement on the ground may be more accurate, from space we can do the large-scale, continuous monitoring which provides useful data for many applications.

Towards the end of her video, Debbie mentions that satellites don’t last forever and many are pushed into a ‘junk orbit’ - relegated to travelling around the Earth as ‘debris’ when they are no longer used. This article on the ESA website highlights this issue, describing an incident of a satellite being damaged by space debris.

You will explore open satellite data in more detail in Week 2 of the course, when Debbie introduces the Climate Change Initiative open data portal on the European Space Agency website. The portal can be accessed by clicking on “Data” in the left hand menu.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Big Data and the Environment

University of Reading