Satellite Applications: Earth Observation

What are satellites used for?

We’ve come a long way since the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was successfully placed in orbit around the Earth in 1957. Today, we can hardly imagine our lives without satellite technology. Often, we do not even realise the numerous ways they have become a part of our daily lives.

Broadly speaking, satellites applications can be broken down into three categories:

  • Earth observation applications
  • Communications satellites
  • Global Navigation Satellite Systems

Each of these categories includes multiple uses for artificial satellites, designed to make a positive impact on our lives and societies.

Earth Observation satellites

According to the Satellite Database, assembled by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), nearly a third of satellites currently in orbit are used for Earth observation purposes. They provide us with images from around the globe and help us monitor areas that are too remote for human access.

The most obvious and recognisable applications of Earth observation satellites are weather forecasts and maps. However, they can be used for many more diverse purposes. For instance, they can help combat the ongoing climate change crisis: by observing and monitoring the changing environment, they provide reliable evidence of coastal erosion, temperature changes, deforestation, melting ice sheets, ocean pollution, coral reef bleaching and many other observations that provide invaluable data on the changing climate.     

How Earth observation satellites work

Essentially, there are two main types of Earth Observation satellites: optical and radar.

Optical satellites use reflected sunlight to gather data. They view the world as the human eye does, which means imagery is only available on a clear and mostly cloudless day. Radar satellites, on the other hand, work by emitting microwave pulses which reflect off ground features. This provides uninterrupted views day and night under any weather conditions. In the recent years, it has become more common for Earth observation scientists to use both optical and radar data sets in their analysis and research.

Earth observation space missions built on Bright Ascension’s software

At Bright Ascension, we have been privileged to support a number of Earth observation space missions over the years.

SeaHawk: Ocean Colour Monitoring Earth Observation CubeSat

SeaHawk-1 is an earth observation CubeSat. The innovative ocean colour monitoring CubeSat, was designed by the University of North Carolina. Its sensor observes changes in ocean surface colour, which relates directly to the substances and the organisms within it. Captured daily, high-resolution observations of ocean changes can be used for multiple purposes: from alerting researchers to the onset and expansion of harmful algal blooms, to potential fishing zones. This CubeSat is a proof of concept of a system which has the potential to greatly increase the availability and resolution of scientifically important ocean colour data through a network of satellites that are much smaller and cheaper than those currently used for this purpose.

SeaHawk was built with our Flight Software Development Kit to accelerate space mission development and is taking full advantage of the benefits offered by our Mission Control Software.

IOD-1 GEMS: Weather Observation CubeSat

The IOD-1 space mission was the key first step in the Orbital Micro Systems’ GEMS programme roll-out to test the commercial viability of the proposed service and prove its concept and technology.

The company’s weather observation payload, developed as part of the Global Environmental Monitoring Satellite (GEMS) program, is designed to deliver highly accurate and frequent weather readings for the benefit of the insurance, aerospace, maritime, energy and agricultural industries. For example, airlines and shipping companies will be able to plan routes taking into account optimal weather conditions, reducing delays, fuel consumption and emissions while operating with greater safety.

The GEMS network is expected to gather weather data more frequently and with better clarity than the large institutional satellites currently in use. IOD-1 GEMS was built to demonstrate the viability of the service to potential customers and prove successful operation of the payload technology.

The IOD-1 GEMS CubeSat, successfully deployed in 2020, ran a flight software suite developed by Bright Ascension using our Flight Software Development Kit, and communicated with our Mission Control Software running at the operations centre.

See our Launched Missions to find out more about the different types of earth observation CubeSats and other space missions we’ve supported over the years. Alternatively, contact us today to discuss your satellite software needs.