To solve the greatest challenges on Earth, we need a bit of perspective.
But which perspective is best? For our Centre for Earth Observation Director Dr Amy Parker, the answer starts several hundred kilometres above the ground – in low Earth orbit.
“Satellites are fundamental to understanding our planet – from the state of waterways to the health of crops and the impacts of disasters like bushfires,” Amy said.
“People often ask, ‘Why focus on space instead of our problems on Earth?’ The truth is space helps us to tackle those very problems.”
Observing Earth from space has applications across a wide range of research disciplines and industries, including disaster mitigation, agriculture, meteorology, and mining. Data is captured from satellites in orbit that can ‘see’ in a variety of ways. This includes optical light, which is how you and I see. Then there's near- and far-infrared light, which can detect heat and fires. There's even radar, which can capture data through clouds and at night.
That data informs decision-making on Earth. It helps us to prepare for natural disasters, locate valuable mineral deposits, or guide the planting of crops.
Guiding bushfire monitoring and recovery
Bushfires are a frequent risk in Australia. Recent consecutive years of above-average rainfall have increased fuel loads across parts of the continent. Understanding where the risk lies, and where fires are spreading, is crucial to mitigating damage to property, livestock, and life.
Earth observation is an important tool in reducing this risk. Working alongside the Department of Defence and Geoscience Australia we developed Sentinel Hotspots. This web-based platform used satellite data to track the location and progression of hotspots in close to real-time.
Our share of the NovaSAR-1 satellite gives us additional insight into bushfire damage. The satellite uses synthetic aperture radar to ‘see’ at night and through clouds and smoke. Using this technology, we’ve mapped the extent of bushfire scarring on Queensland’s K’gari (formerly Fraser Island). This information could help guide future decisions on disaster recovery.
Tracking water quality from space
What if we had a weather service, but for water quality?
CSIRO's AquaWatch Australia mission aims to do just that, with the help of both sensors in the water and satellites in orbit.
By tracking the colour signature of water from space, researchers can identify water quality problems like algal blooms and sediment. This helps decision-makers stop harmful fish kills or prevent erosion. These tools are already being used to understand sediment flows into the Great Barrier Reef.
Earth observation guides agriculture
On such a massive continent, it can be difficult to understand the state of hundreds of millions of hectares of land. Earth observation, combined with machine learning and data analytics, is providing unprecedented insight into the state of arable land. Our Rural Intelligence Platform provides farm-scale and farm-level data on crop identification and yield prediction across a range of commodities, including wheat, barley and canola.
Identifying natural resources
As the world moves closer to a clean energy transformation, identifying the critical minerals that enable these technologies is more important than ever. A key challenge for industry has been managing inconsistent mineral maps, which hamper efforts to target exploration.
Using data from Japan’s Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) satellite, we created a comprehensive dataset that combined 3,500 images into one continent-wide mosaic. This data has provided an important baseline for explorers to retrieve the minerals needed for batteries, solar panels, and other renewable technologies.
Improving outcomes for Australia and the region
We're deploying our expertise in observing Earth from space to improve outcomes and strengthen partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region. We've conducted workshops and hackathons under our Earth Observation for Climate Smart Innovation initiative, equipping researchers and students in the region with the tools needed to make informed decisions about coastal ecosystems, aquaculture, and urbanisation.
We've also partnered with Boeing and the Vietnam National Space Centre to increase capabilities with satellite data, helping to monitor land use, air quality, waterways and crop productivity.
Expanding our Earth observation capability
With more and more Earth observation satellites being launched into space, scientists will have access to a greater volume and variety of data than ever before.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in Earth observation,” Amy said.
“As technologies improve, we’ll continue to push the boundaries of how space can improve life on Earth.”