Better eye in the sky

CSIRO invests in NovaSAR satellite technology


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Computer generated image of NovaSAR-S in orbit. Photo: SSTL

Computer generated image of NovaSAR-S in orbit. Photo: SSTL

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CSIRO invests in NovaSAR satellite

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THIS year many of us would be happy to see a cloud on the horizon, however for scientists monitoring research and disaster impacts, a series of cloudy days is a big problem.

A new investment by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) will give Australia access to one of the world’s most sophisticated high-performance satellites, one which can see in the dark. 

The $10.45 million agreement was announced today at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

Costed over seven years, the agreement will give CSIRO a 10 per cent share of the ‘tasking and acquisition’ of the NovaSAR satellite.

Agricultural use

CSIRO Landscape Observation and Simulation Group research leader, Dr Alex Held, said the agreement would be beneficial for agricultural research and rural communities.

“Often it is too cloudy to use the optical satellites which we use for taking biomass measurements such as NDVI,” said Dr Held.

“The NovaSAR satellite is a radar imaging satellite.

NovaSAR animation

“It measures directly the structure and the density of vegetation and crops.

“We will use this data to conduct research into how we can use radar data to track the growth and the biomass of crops.

“A good example is sugarcane, where we can use this to look at the development of the crop as it grows,” he said.

Due for launch later this year, the NovaSAR satellite uses an advanced form of radar technology known as S-band Synthetic Aperture Radar, or S-band SAR.

S-band SAR allow images to be developed based on radar rather then optical cameras.

This allows the images to be captured despite conditions which would stop light waves such as clouds and smoke.

Images can also be captured at night, unlike optical cameras.

The agreement will give CSIRO the right to direct the satellite’s activity over Australia as well as download and process the data in Australia.

NovaSAR on test at Airbus. Photo: Airbus Defence and Space

NovaSAR on test at Airbus. Photo: Airbus Defence and Space

Dr Held said while the satellite would primarily be used for research, it may provide an opportunity for proof of concept for commercial use of this technology.

“In the future, this may allow us to bring this experience into other satellites or new satellites we may build in Australia, with more broad scale mapping capabilities,” he said.

Developed by UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), and with a payload supplied by Airbus UK, S-band SAR technology is considered a significant advancement on current civilian satellite capability.

The satellite can collect data in different spatial resolutions depending on the mode, said Dr Held.

“It can be focused to collect at 6 metres over a small footprint, or up to 30 metres over a bigger swath, depending on what people want to use it for.”

Rural disaster intelligence

The radar will image through cloud or smoke, which will be useful in the case of fires said Dr Held.

“The technology does not detect the heat from the fire, but it will allow us to map the footprint of the fire.”

This will allow for comparison and measurement of impact of fires, he said.

The satellite could also be used in emergency situations such as flood or cyclone damage monitoring.

“The advantage of this agreement is that we are paying for time and the ability to point the satellite where we want it.”

“The data can be downloaded straight into Australian receiving stations, so it is an extremely fast turnaround for people who may need it in emergency situations,” he said.

Space capability investment

Federal Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos, said the agreement was a timely investment in Australia’s space capability.

“Australia is one of the largest users of Earth Observation from Space data world-wide, with satellite data underpinning more than 100 state and federal resource mapping and environmental monitoring programs across Australia,” said Minister Sinodinos.

Computer generated image of NovaSAR-S. Image: SSTL

Computer generated image of NovaSAR-S. Image: SSTL

“This agreement will allow CSIRO, via its national facility management capability, to strengthen Australia’s delivery of excellence in science and innovation.

“It will help CSIRO lead our nation’s development in the technical and analytical capability of modelling, monitoring and analysing our natural resource management and approaches to infrastructure.

“This will also lead to better and more informed support for policy and decision-making and, ultimately, our economic development as a nation.” he said.

Dr Dave Williams, Executive Director of Digital, National Facilities and Collections at CSIRO, said the deal represented a significant investment in Australia’s space capability.

“Because we’ll be able to direct the satellite’s activity, it provides significant opportunities to support a wide range of existing research, further develop Australia’s earth observation data analytics expertise, and create new opportunities in the field of remote sensing,” he said.

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