Category Archives: Imagery

New Space Satellites and Data

Another of my posts.  This time it’s a bit about the opportunity for “New Space” companies to not only produce data, but also build up a robust infrastructure to shunt it around.  It might be an opportunity that will grow.  Read it here:  The New Space Data Challenge–An Opportunity for Growth?


“Space Ventura,” Space Detective

Space Detective

This is an odd business opportunity, and one which Air and Space Evidence Ltd. looks keen and ready to exploit.  Their work seems to identify a gap that civil local government services haven’t yet addressed:  solving crimes using Earth Observation imagery.  The company isn’t just focusing on capital crimes, such as murder (although this NewScientist story talks about a murder-solving attempt).  The company is also looking to solve other sorts of mysteries.  If the mystery occurred at a time and place in which an Earth Observing satellite happened to be looking, then there may be a chance to get evidence and analyze it.

This seems to be one of the big services Air and Space Evidence offers:  contacting the owners of the satellite data, getting it, and then interpreting the data.  This way, customers who aren’t necessarily familiar with Earth Observation companies, don’t really have to be.  Air and Space Evidence will do that work, and provide other space-related expertise for them.

Another issue, which is not quite obvious to anyone who has not worked with imagery–making sure the imagery can be authenticated and used by the courts.  It seems that some artifacts and imagery accuracy could be questioned by the courts, who could toss out the imagery if they thought it was tampered with or junk.

This “authentication” may actually be a higher standard than what is required by government customers, like the US government, when imagery is analyzed and interpreted.  It’s not that the current crop of imagery analysts are inept–there are analysts in private companies and government organizations who are very good at interpreting Earth Observation data.  But a third party might be a good idea as a business practice soon.  A preferably unbiased third party could examine the data, give it a good analysis to see just how well it holds up, then “certify” it.

With the very quick expansion of imagery satellites and payloads orbiting the Earth for private companies, the work that Air and Space Evidence is attempting to do looks like a very smart grab at an opportunity that can potentially be very rewarding.  There will very likely be room for others.

The Safe Way to Observe a Volcano

Image of Bardarbunga volcano from NASA’s Earth Observatory pages.

I suppose it isn’t ironic to anyone that Iceland is home to some hot attractions, such as volcanoes.  On August 28, 2014, their Bardarbunga (sounds like something out of Ninja Turtles) volcano erupted a bit.  All sorts of tools have been used to observe the angry mountain:  webcams, helicopters, cars, and planes.  Of course, most of these require a person to be there, operating the transportation vehicles for the photographers on board.  Even the webcam probably required a brave soul to get as close as possible to the volcano placing the webcamera right on the brink of bowel evacuation and certain death.

But, there is a safer and saner way to take pictures of a volcano:  satellites.  Satellites are great for this sort of work, taking photos of volcanoes at decent resolutions, allowing you and I to look at those images from the comfort of our sofas and chairs.  No worries about bowel evacuation (unless you have a severe case of food-poisoning–then why are you even up?).  Certain death isn’t even on the horizon.

The satellites used to image the Bardarbunga volcano were, according to this post, both from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).  The second satellite to get an image of the active volcano (the first image in this post) was the Earth Observing-1 satellite in a sun-synchronous low earth orbit.  It used the Advanced Land Imager payload to take the volcano’s image.  The resolution of that image isn’t that great–every pixel in the image represents 98 feet if taken in color.  In black and white the resolution gets better, with each pixel in the image representing 33 feet.  The latest DIgitalglobe WorldView-3 satellite imager will take pictures in which one pixel represents less than 12 inches.

EO-1 poster from NASA’s Earth Observatory site.

The first NASA satellite to get a look at and send data back about the volcano was the Aqua satellite, using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) payload.  Aqua is in a near-polar LEO.  The MODIS payload was used to create a false-color image by combining infrared and visible light bands to highlight certain features in the picture.  You can go to this site to see the differences between some of MODIS’ images using this method.

Either satellite is definitely preferable to flying, driving, and hiking anywhere near an active volcano.  And the pictures each satellite has produced give information that those closer to the ground might miss.  Safety first, folks.  Safety first.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Image from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3–at 40 cm resolution. Not so bad, eh? Image hosted on DigitalGlobe’s site.

Well, maybe not me specifically, and certainly not right now. However, if someone really wanted to watch me closely, then DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite looks like it might be a decent tool to use for that.

DigitalGlobe just released an announcement and a few images produced from their latest satellite, WorldView-3.  The satellite has a more capable image sensor on board than previous DigitalGlobe satellites, and the pictures released on August 26, 2014, speak volumes about just how capable it might be.

The satellite was launched only a few weeks ago, on August 13, 2014.  It seems DigitalGlobe is wasting no time trying to bring the satellite on-line and are sharing these images to prove it.  A big “but” (everyone has one, according to Pee-Wee) is that the pictures aren’t the best resolution the satellite’s sensor can produce.  Every single image has been “resampled” to 40 cm, or a little less than 16 in, because the company is complying with regulatory restrictions.  The company will continue to comply with those restrictions until February 21, 2015, when the regulatory leash comes off and DigitalGlobe can release 30 cm (less than 12 in) resolution photos.

But, you, and many other interested people, can get a taste of the 40 cm re-sampled pictures just by viewing their slideshow of images of Madrid, Spain.  Their analysts are already identifying open car doors, freight cars, numbers on the runway, wear and tear of runways and roads, and a lot more.  Sure enough, when you look at the pictures, it looks like those are fairly identifiable.

Pretty neat, and there will be all sorts of applications arising to use the data in these images.  Unfortunately, there might be a downside.  I already wrote a short bit about China and its search for lawbreakers using images produced from their Gaofen-1 satellite.  But what if someone with a monetary interest, and a “use a hammer to resolve every problem” approach to customers starts using this data?  Say, like the US IRS?

Think this is unlikely?  Just think about the path our government agencies have been going down lately.  Still not convinced?  Well, there’s this story about the Lithuanian taxman using Google satellite imagery to find monetary miscreants.  Greece uses satellite imagery to find out if undeclared swimming pools have been built in backyards.  And while no one has said anything about our IRS using the internet satellite images for enforcement, they are already apparently using Facebook and Twitter to cross-reference taxpayer information.

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s great to get better pictures from space of the things happening on the Earth.  But remember–there are a lot of consumers of this kind of imagery data.  Maybe we should start considering rules and regulations regarding which US government agency will be able to use them when US citizens are involved.  Some agencies don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, and they are out to get you.  “I wonder who’s watching me now? [WHO?] The IRS?”

Uncovering Secret Sativa Farms From Space

Image from Xinhua, hosted on South China Morning Post Site.

Looks like some regional Chinese officials on the take have been found out, thanks to Chinese imagery satellites.  According to this South China Morning Post article, the first of the latest generation of Chinese imagery satellites, Gaofen-1, has been imaging an area in China that contained a very big marijuana farm.  The whacky weed farm is the biggest ever discovered since 1949.  Such a time span seems to indicate the pot farmers were very good at hiding their crops (possible), but maybe, in exchange for a small, unreported fee, local authorities weren’t trying very hard to disclose this newest discovery to their bigger brothers in the Chinese big-government sector.

Either way, the satellite’s images of the marijuana fields show a steady progression in Chinese imagery technology and Earth observation capabilities.  So perhaps their satellite imagery sensors are close to where US satellite technology was over 10 years ago.  This upgrade in imagery resolution might have caught someone off-guard, because there are certain ways to obscure these green ganjas, learned from US satellite plant detection attempts.  A simple search query “US Satellites marijuana detection” on DuckDuckGo immediately yielded a 420 Caribbean site with suggestions for how and where to plant marijuana crops to avoid overhead surveillance detection.

Those avoidance methods may or may not work.  Remember, some satellites, like DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3, have different energy/color bands to detect particular wavelengths.  I’ve written about this sort of thing, here–start with Part 15, but 16 (careful, a small informational error in this article, but still useful), 17 (addresses error), 18, and a few others have wavelength/color information, too.  Apparently someone already learned some obscuration lessons (as evidenced by the 420 post), thanks to US and ESA drug war efforts, that Chinese Mary Jane cultivators are now re-learning.  Maybe China’s Great Firewall doesn’t allow easy access to such information?

The South China Morning Post’s article also noted that Gaofen-1 has helped analysts find opium fields and smuggling tunnels.  But, as I’ve noted with the Malaysian Airlines MH370 situation and why imagery satellites are having a difficult time with that mystery, the satellite operators have to know where to look in order to find the fields and tunnels.  So maybe some clever detective or miffed MAFIA-type gave a tip of where to look.

Gaofen-1 is one of two Gaofen satellites orbiting the Earth.  According to the Post, the Chinese would like to increase the number of satellites for their imagery constellation to seven, which means they will have beat DigitalGlobe’s current constellation of 5 imagery satellites.  But this kind of thing changes all the time, and government plans, even from a very top-down style of government, are very prone to political whims.