Insight

Solving earth’s crises with satellite imagery

A solution to one of the world’s most pressing issues – a refugee crisis in the Middle East – may lie some 10 km away from the earth surface. Just like a scene from the Martian or Gravity, satellite imagery has been an indispensable part of international search and rescue missions like the missing Malaysian Airlines flights MH370, forest fires in California or more recently managing refugee flows from war-torn Syria.

Google has popularized the use of optical imagery with Google Map. Since its launch in 2005, receive millions of hits a day, making it one of the world’s most popular sites. Google buys satellite images from companies like GeoEye (now owned by DigitalGlobe). Recently Google bought a start-up satellite imaging company, Skybox, which will provide the Internet giant an in-house production of satellite images.

Optical satellite imaging is a distinct type of remote-sensing tool.  It uses optical sensors, which uses infrared wavelengths, as supposed to microwaves as in radar satellite imaging. Just like taking a photo, optical imaging is particularly suited for detecting change over time for a variety of purposes. With very high resolution, optical imagery can provide incredible data and information regarding specific locations and events on the ground. The main drawback of optical imaging, however, is that it cannot penetrate well through clouds or at night.

During a time of major global natural disaster or health crisis, the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, can be activated to obtain free satellite images from either government or commercial operators. Most recently, the Charter was activated to aid in the monitoring of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and Guinea, allowing the World Health Organization to gain critical information on the direction, extent and speed of the spreading of the disease.

Satellite image: @CNES 2015.  Distribution Airbus DS

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