Low-cost disaster monitoring from satellites

With little hype, a British company (Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, linked to the University of Surrey) is beginning to develop a constellation of remote sensing satellites that aim at monitoring a variety of threatening phenomena across the whole planet.  The Disaster Monitoring Constellation produces images at the same resolution (about 30 metres) as the US Landsat Thematic Mapper, but is unique in two aspects.  The satellites and launching them are cheap, because they are tiny by comparison with the giants normally associated with remote sensing, weighing in at only a few hundred kilograms, and they also use off-the-shelf components including the imaging devices.  Second, the four current DMC satellites fly in concert to cover the whole Earth with images 600 km across (Landsat images cover less than a tenth of the area) every day. No other system is capable of that degree of timeliness, the shortest “revist” time to now having been 16 days.  SSTL does not own the satellites or the data, but builds them on contract for developing countries.  The first to reach orbit, in November 2002, belongs to Algeria.  It was joined on 27 September 2003 by three more, sponsored by Turkey, Nigeria and the UK, which were successfully launched by a Kosmos rocket from Plesetsk in northern Russia, at a total cost of around $85 million.  These will be joined by similar platforms sponsored by China, Thailand and Vietnam in the next few years.  The targets are wildfires, floods, windstorms, volcanic eruptions, erosion and potential landslides, with the added benefit of very detailed information about changes in agriculture and forestry, and baseline mapping of geological and hydrological features.  Perhaps most important, it gives less affluent countries independent access to space imagery, which can only boost the confidence of natural scientists in the third world who are venturing into remote sensing after years of playing second fiddle to North American, Japanese and European specialists.  Organisations, such as Reuters Foundation AlertNet and the International Charter, plus other international disaster relief organisations, can tap in for images at very short notice  Astonishingly, SSTL has launched and is planning imaging satellites that weigh in as little as 7 kg.  The low-key announcement of the launch of the 3 latest members of the DMC (www.sstl.co.uk) coincided with US and British hype-fests centred on the current missions to Mars.  There is little doubt which will provide the most lasting benefits.

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