Archive - 2015

Connecting rural areas of the Plateau Continent
Copernicus: Europe’s eyes in space
LISA pathfinder takes to the skies
Finders keepers in space
The Rockwell International Integrated Space Plan
Crowd sourcing deep space communication
How Deep Learning could revolutionise Earth Observation

Connecting rural areas of the Plateau Continent

africa from space

The bid to bring internet connectivity to the entire African continent got serious this year, and everyone seems to agree space is the best solution. So how are satellites helping fill the gaps in rural connectivity and who is involved?

Building web infrastructure in rural areas is a challenge for all developing countries, but if you consider that 63% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lives in rural areas, the size and importance of the task there are thrown into sharp relief. Little wonder then that Facebook made headlines with their recent announcement to partner with Eutelsat on a major satellite project launching next year with the goal of providing continent-wide web coverage. In fact, similar Facebook projects have drawn criticism over net neutrality issues, but if these lessons have been learned, this project will represent a positive, albeit relatively short-term, solution for the continent; the economic and social benefits of bringing internet access to this demographic are undoubtedly huge.
The Facebook/Eutelsat project is part of a larger initiative,, which Facebook announced two years ago in an effort to accelerate the rate of connectivity by addressing the physical, economic and social barriers that are keeping people from getting online. The company plans to work with local partners across Africa to utilise satellite and terrestrial capacity in order to deliver services to rural towns and villages.

“Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting the people of Africa,” explains Chris Daniels, VP of  “We are looking forward to partnering with Eutelsat on this project and investigating new ways to use satellites to connect people in the most remote areas of the world more efficiently.”

As part of a multi-year agreement with Spacecom, the two companies will utilise the entire broadband payload on the AMOS-6 satellite. They are currently building a dedicated system comprising satellite capacity, gateways and terminals and the team aims to have the service operational by the second half of 2016.

The system itself is configured with high gain spot beams, meaning it will be able to provide targeted coverage to large parts of West, East and Southern Africa. The service is optimised for community and Direct-to-User access using affordable, off-the-shelf equipment.

A Bigger Picture
OneWeb, a project backed by Virgin Galactic, is thinking more broadly in its ambitions. The company’s constellation of satellites logically interlock with one another to create a coverage footprint across the globe. The first of 720 satellites will be launched in 2017, and once full deployment is achieved in 2019, the system will provide affordable access to all areas where current internet provision is currently unavailable.

OneWeb’s satellites are closer to Earth, allowing for high performance connectivity. Small, low-cost user terminals talk to the satellites in the sky, and emit LTE, 3G and WiFi to the surrounding areas, providing high-speed access for everyone. The benefits are manifold; in addition to rural coverage, company Founder Greg Wyler believes the OneWeb system will make a real difference to first responders and other aid workers, bridging thee gaps during hurricanes, earthquakes and refugee situations, where those on the ground are are often left abruptly without infrastructure. The system can also provide low-latency web access to planes.

The Long Game
If it’s so clear that one of the most pressing economic drivers of satellite technology is its potential to boost telecommunications, what foundations are individual countries laying to boost their digital access long term?

Countries like Zimbabwe don’t have national space programmes of their own, but are nevertheless keen to take advantage of satellite capabilities; earlier in the year, TelOne, the national telco, announced that it would be using capacity from a satellite run by British satellite operator Avanti Communications.

“Our contract has enabled us to address Zimbabwe’s gaping digital divide at pace,” stated Chipo Mtasa, TelOne’s Managing Director. “Satellite continues to play a huge role in bringing communities, businesses, and public sector organisations online.”

Avanti has been heavily involved in Africa’s satellite technology ventures. According to the company’s chief operating officer Matthew O’Connor, the continent now accounts for over 80 percent of Avanti’s capacity.

“Most satellites are built and launched by the major European and US aerospace companies,” he says. “The huge cost of building and launching satellites, together with the expertise needed to operate them and the long lead times to get a project underway, mean that most governments find that it is cheaper, quicker, and better in terms of service delivery to choose a commercial provider such as Avanti.”

Along with TelOne, Avanti is working with a number of other Africa telcos, including Orange Kenya and Tanzania Telecom, as well as internet service providers like Wanachi and Internet Solutions, the largest pan-African ISP. “Our proprietary software enables a service provider to set up and manage an international network with very little training,” says O’Connor. With these advances, the next few years should see a sharp rise in web literacy on the continent, and that in turn is key to driving innovation at a time when levels of foreign investment are growing rapidly.

If you’re interested in learning more from industry leaders including Eutelsat, OneWeb, and Virgin Galactic, remember to register for the Space Innovation Conference, which takes place in London on 7th-8th April 2016:

Copernicus: Europe’s eyes in space


EU space activities rarely make the news headlines, but those in the industry have plenty to be excited about. Much of the current buzz revolves around Copernicus, the EU’s multi-billion-euro Earth observation programme.

Earth observation (EO) accounts for a major slice of the global space economy. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 58% of the sector relies directly or indirectly on EO satellite data and signals. With this in mind, it’s little wonder that the EU space industry is excited by Copernicus – an impressively ambitious programme designed to support some of Europe’s biggest challenges, including environmental disasters, land use for agriculture and forestry, and responses to emergency situations.

Copernicus – which was jointly developed by the European Commission, the European Parliament, EU Member States and the European Space Agency – launched the first of its satellites, Sentinel-1, last year. With the launch of the Sentinal-2 in June 2015, the amount of EO data generated by the programme grew significantly, as did downstream business opportunities. When Sentinel-2B joins its older sibling in orbit next year, that mission alone will be capable of obtaining complete coverage of the Earth’s land surface every five days, creating around two petabytes of data annually. But Copernicus data is guaranteed to be free-of-charge and open access until 2034, so why do forecasts suggest significant growth in downstream revenue?

Raw results
Copernicus generates a huge amount of raw data, but transforming it into useful is a complex and highly valuable task. It is within this niche that the downstream EO data industry has evolved. Many companies work in specialised areas, combining satellite data with other inputs to create tailored products and services.

To add a little more context to the current landscape, there are currently around 50 companies evaluating data from Sentinal-2a. “Agriculture is becoming a data-driven business,” explains Heike Bach, CEO at Vista, a German company that provides a range of data products for farmers. The Vista team combines optical satellite images with information from ground sensors, satnav and sophisticated crop growth models to enable precision farming on a local scale.

The high standard of Vista’s work is not only good for their profitability and that of the farmers they serve, the services also drive environmental benefits. For example, in collaboration with partners FarmFacts and John Deere, the team developed an easy-to-use system for precise, site-specific application of organic or mineral fertilisers, thus reducing the significant damage caused by fertiliser run-off.


The sky’s the limit

By 2021, Copernicus will be running six dedicated Sentinel missions, some of which include multiple satellite launches. The huge swathes of data that will be generated means there are also data management opportunities closer to the original collection source; ESA has just extended its contract with Indra, making one of the Spanish company’s data-processing and archiving centers a key resource up to 2020. The contract also includes data management for the Sentinel-2 satellites.

This is all part of the so-called ‘third wave of space’, characterised by a move towards greater private sector involvement in space where once there was only an institutional presence. Copernicus is demonstrating just how powerful this third wave can be when built around an institutional core. In fact, research conducted during Copernicus’ development suggests the programme will contribute €30 billion to the European economy as well as creating around 50,000 jobs by 2030. Against this context, the future of Europe’s space innovation looks very bright indeed.

The Sentinel missions at a glance:

  • Sentinel-1 provides all-weather, day and night radar imaging for land and ocean services
  • Sentinel-2 provides high-resolution optical imaging for land services (e.g. imagery of vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas). It will also provide information for emergency services
  • Sentinel-3 will provide ocean and global land monitoring services
  • Sentinel-4 will provide data for atmospheric composition monitoring. It will be launched in 2021
  • Sentinel-5 Precursor is a subset of the Sentinel 5 sensor set planned for launch in 2016. Its primary purpose is to reduce the data gap between the loss of ENVISAT in 2012, and the launch of Sentinel-5 in 2021
  • Sentinel-5 will provide data for atmospheric composition monitoring
  • Sentinel-6 is designed to sustain high precision altimetry missions following the Jason-2 satellite

If you are interested in Copernicus or any of the other topics covered here, make sure you take a look at the agenda for Day 1 of the Space Innovation Congress.

LISA pathfinder takes to the skies

The LISAPathfinder spacecraft separates from its propulsion module as it arrives at its destination orbit located at the L1 Lagrange point.

The LISAPathfinder spacecraft separates from its propulsion module as it arrives at its destination orbit located at the L1 Lagrange point.

ESA’s LISA Pathfinder blasted off on 3 December at 04:04 GMT (05:04 CET) on a Vega rocket that delivered it to a low-Earth parking orbit. From there, the satellite will perform a series of six critical burns with its own propulsion system over the coming week, to raise the highest point of its orbit and eventually start the cruise towards its operational orbit around the Lagrange point L1, 1.5 million km away from Earth towards the Sun.

An experimental satellite, LISA pathfinder will test a technique to detect ripples in space and across time, adding a new perspective for viewing and understanding the universe.

From a vantage point 93 million miles (1.5 million km) from Earth, the European-built spacecraft, is expected to break ground in the search for the ripples, known as gravitational waves, caused by fast-moving, massive celestial objects such as merging black holes.

Black holes are so dense with matter that not even photons of light can escape the powerful gravitational effects.

“This will really open up a new window into the universe. God knows what we will learn,” said European Space Agency deputy mission scientist Oliver Jennrich.

Like light, gravity travels in waves. Unlike light, gravitational waves bend the interwoven fabric of space and time, a phenomenon conceptualised by physicist Albert Einstein a century ago. Before Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity was seen as a force between two bodies.
In the pre-Einstein view of physics, if the sun disappeared one day, people on Earth would feel it instantly. In Einstein’s view, the effects would not be felt for eight minutes, the time both light waves and gravitational waves take to travel from the sun to Earth.
So far, attempts to detect gravitational waves using Earth-based detectors have been unsuccessful.

Massive objects such as black holes bend space and time more than smaller bodies like the sun, similar to how a bowling ball warps the surface of a trampoline more than a tennis ball.

“There’s a whole spectrum of gravitational waves, just like there’s a whole spectrum of electromagnetic waves,” said astrophysicist Ira Thorpe of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
An operational gravitational wave observatory under development would require three satellites, flying in a triangle formation about 621,000 miles (1 million kilometres) apart. The satellites would contain small metal cubes that would oscillate as a gravitational wave passes through.

Using a laser to measure tiny changes in distance between the cubes, scientists hope to track the subtle flexing of space and time. LISA (Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) Pathfinder will demonstrate the concept with two metal cubes 15 inches (38 cm) apart inside a single spacecraft.

The spacecraft is expected to reach its operational orbit in February 2016 and, after final checks, it will begin its six-month scientific mission at the beginning of March.
The mission, designed to last six months, cost about 400 million euros ($423 million).

Finders keepers in space


As the U.S. Congress passed last Tuesday the H.R. 2262 – a ‘finders keepers’ law that allows someone who discovers resources on another planet, galaxy, or universe to claim them legally we now face a space race from the private sector to claim these resources.

Thanks to the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 and its amendments we have seen an influx of private companies such a SpaceX or Virgin Galactic trying to get their missions beyond orbit and into the galaxies far far away.

Although under international law it is still illegal to claim extraterrestrial real estate, it is now legal to harvest the wealth contained in moons, planets and asteroids.

This is will, no doubt, launch a series of legal issues if any of the projects currently in the pipeline take off – in the literal sense of the word.

Asteroid mining is already a reality with Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources in the marketplace, we will no doubt see others following suit.

However, after the recent NASA revelations on the environment on Mars – what constitutes life? Will other planets have life forms? If so, what spectrum will they be in? Where will we draw the line?

Before we answer all the above we will see stronger investment in space technology and a significant growth in the sector going forward.

The Rockwell International Integrated Space Plan

It was first developed in the 1980’s by Rockwell Analyst Ron Jones chartering an inspirational vision for humanity’s future in Outer Space.
At the top appear historical events like ‘Voyager II Uranus enconter’ and ‘OV-105 Delivery’ at the bottom, ambitious future milestones like ‘Stationary Martian Skyhook’ and ‘Interstellar Traversing World Ships’
The timeline spans roughly 100 years, from 1983 to 2100 AD
Here we bring you an infographic of the plan as you have never seen it before.

Integrated-Space-Plan Integrated-Space Plan

Crowd sourcing deep space communication

blog photo

Deep space communication poses a range of significant challenges. To overcome them, NASA is taking more flexible approaches to problem solving than ever before. We look at how their collaboration with TopCoder is evolving the uses of crowd-sourced code, and consider what lies ahead

Email is so ubiquitous and fast that we may be inclined to take it for granted, but what if you were trying to email home from another planet? In this context – or the ‘Matt Damon scenario’ as I now call it – a number of issues may cause you problems, including distance, planet rotation and transmission power limits. These obstacles are not just hypothetical; astronauts on the International Space Station often suffer email issues, particularly when attempting to send large attachments. To achieve effective deep space communication, space agencies therefore need to build what are known as disruption-tolerant networks.

TopCoder has hosted technical competitions since 2001 and they’re understandably considered to be at the premium online technical community. Members select contests and view individual contest requirements. Specialists within the community then compete in a series of competitions that comprise the whole project.

In April 2014, NASA launched a project with TopCoder to improve computer network architecture for deep space, and it completed in June 2015. In total, there were 12 challenges they were worked on by 146 contributors from 42 countries.

Bundle of fun

So what exactly were the coders working on? The goal was ultimately to provide a shared framework for algorithm and application development in disruption-tolerant networks.

NASA had previously published a couple of ‘requests for comment’ on an experimental protocol (commonly known as the Bundle Protocol) they were running on disrupted networks, which defines a series of contiguous data blocks as a bundle. Each of these bundles provides sufficient semantic information for the application to make progress where an individual block might not.

Overcoming disruption issues would also help improve security as authentication and privacy are often critical to data sent via disruption-tolerant networks. These security guarantees are difficult to establish in a network without persistent connectivity: the disruptions to the network can hinder complicated cryptographic protocols and key exchange, and each device must identify other intermittently visible devices.

Successful solutions

The solution the coders developed includes both client- and server-sides of the communication. Importantly, the support code doesn’t interfere with ground users using the same exchange server. The code supports unpredictable suspension of communication for up to four hours, unpredictable loss of data, and round-trip times on the order of .6 s – 1 s. In short, the project outputs ably met NASA’s requirements.

This isn’t the first collaboration between NASA and TopCoder. In fact, the NASA National Tournament Lab was actually established in 2011 as a result of a 2009 TopCoder challenge. Clearly then, NASA sees this crowd sourcing approach as broadly beneficial. However, while this challenge won’t be the last, in the realm of deep space communications, NASA seems intent on prioritising lasers.

According to Kevin Carmack, NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration Project Manager, lasers represent the “optical communication of the future”. This new technology is already proving to work as effectively as many in the sector believed it would. As such, the gains in bandwidth and the consequent speed of large data transference, means disruption-tolerant networks may soon be rendered a thing of the past. Not only do lasers require less transmission power, the low divergence of laser beams makes them a secure option for long range communications.

New miniature OCSD satellite launches

To help test the potential of laser communication on small scale satellites, NASA and The Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, California have just launched the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) CubeSat. The innovation here is that the laser is hard-mounted to the spacecraft body, and the orientation of the CubeSat controls the direction of the beam, allowing design of the most compact system ever.

Along with other government agencies, academia and commercial companies, NASA can use the results of the test to incorporate laser communication technology into future space missions, as Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate states: “Technology demonstration missions like OCSD are driving exploration. By improving the communication capability of small spacecraft to support data-intensive science missions, OCSD will advance the potential to become a more viable option for mission planners.”

With the rapid speed of technology convergence, it therefore seems that NASA has started to understand how to allow open innovation to flourish more readily within Administration projects.

How Deep Learning could revolutionise Earth Observation


Earth Observation has been a little overlooked this year but integrating Deep Learning technologies could power rapid developments across the entire field. Here, we look at two interesting ways this sub-domain of artificial intelligence could aid industry and international agencies alike.

It’s hard to argue with the enthusiasm for looking upwards and outwards that has swept the globe in recent months; we have witnessed some truly historic scientific landmarks, including the discovery of water on Mars and the emphatic flyby of Pluto (NASA is releasing new images of the dwarf planet’s blue sky as I type). Of course, it’s worth remembering that those achievements came about from innovative technologies converging over the past decade, and similar forward leaps look set to revolutionise Earth Observation in the near future.

Earth Observation and image recognition

When looking down from above, one longstanding challenge with managing satellite data concerns hyperspectral data classification. For a moment, however, let’s look at a broader level and consider image recognition technology more generally.

Historically, programming computers to classify images effectively has been difficult. Google Image Search demonstrates this point well; this search engine does not currently recognise the image itself, but finds matches by analysing metatags and page content, the origins of which have at some point been manually user-generated. Looking to the future, however, these search functions will be able to match images by actually understanding what an object looks like and matching that with others it understands to be similar. In fact, Baidu, the Chinese search giant, and others, have already arrived at this point. This area of work, known as Deep Learning, is most commonly based on creating convolutional neural networks (if you’re an outsider to the field, they might sound incredibly complicated, but don’t worry, to an insider they seem even more complex). In essence, though, they are systems by which computer agents learn to recognise image segments at a minute scale as a stepping stone to understanding features and then finally objects and scenes, without additional inputs beyond raw data.

Deep Learning and hyperspectral data classification

Returning to an Earth Observation context, hyperspectral data are essentially images that reveal added context about the materials pictured. Classification systems for these images are ineffective at present and huge mountains of data are being constantly harvested. Fortunately, we seem to be right at the upswing of exponential improvements here. And, such is the nature of Deep Learning, once engineers reach a certain level of success with algorithm development for the agent itself, raw data is all that is required for further improvement. Usefully, raw data is not something satellites struggle to collect, they do so in abundance, which leads neatly on to Deep Learning applications and data storage.

Can Deep Learning help with data storage?

So what about data storage? Well here’s where things get a little more theoretical, but also more fascinating with regards to artificial intelligence. Some researchers, have described a new type of deep neural network – a Perpetual Learning Machine – that uses statistical recall biases to mimic human memory to a limited extent, creating a ‘use it or lose it’ stimulus driven memory process. The suggestion is that researchers could build algorithms that make decisions about what to use their memory for, essentially ‘forgetting’ information they have learnt to deem unimportant through experimentation on huge datasets. The implication is that the huge challenges in data storage that currently exist could be overcome not by us, but by computerised agents themselves.

Going deeper

This only scrapes the surface of some very complex fields of course, but it does go some way to highlighting just how exciting near-future technology convergence could be for Earth Observation applications. If hyperspectral data classification or storage are important to your project or business, but you don’t work in these research fields directly, I’d suggest seeking out the best minds in Deep Learning right now, as there are still so few who really grasp the subject area at both broad and detailed scales.

Keep up to date

Twitter is a great place to keep up to date with Earth Observation developments as they happen. Follow us here:

Tweets by @spacecongress

To save you time, we’ve also curated a list of other top Earth Observation Twitter accounts to follow:

• Aberystwyth University: @AU_EarthObs
• African Physicists: @AfricanPhysics
• Canadian Space Agency: @CSA_ASC
• Disasters Charter: @DisastersChart
• Earth Observing Lab: @ncareol
• ESA EarthObservation: @ESA_EO
• ESA Italy: @ESA_Italia
• ESA Science: @esascience
• European Space Agency: @ESA
• Group on Earth Observations: @GEOSEC2025
• India Space: @India_inSpace
• Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency: @JAXA_en
• NASA Astronauts: @NASA_Astronauts
• NASA Goddard: @NASAGoddard
• NASA Landsat Program: @NASA_Landsat

NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive mission @NASASMAP


• National Weather Service: @NWS
• Sensing Our Planet: @sensingrplanet
• Space Generation Advisory Council: @SGAC
• The World Meteorological Organization: @WMOnews
• UK Space Agency: @spacegovuk
• World Resources Institute: @worldresources