Nations Lend Satellites to Tsunami Relief Effort

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  Space News Business

Nations Lend Satellites to Tsunami Relief Effort

By K.S. JAYARAMAN, PETER B. de SELDING And JASON BATES
Space News Staff Writers
posted: 31 January 2005
10:54 am ET


WASHINGTON — Remote sensing and communications satellite assets of Asia, Europe and North America have been marshaled in the international effort to facilitate recovery from the Dec. 26 tsunamis that devastated parts of South and Southeast Asia.

A multinational charter that sets satellites to work covering disaster areas free of charge to users was activated on three separate occasions Dec. 26 to gather data of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the rest of the tsunami-struck region .

Since then, before-and-after maps of the afflicted regions have been assembled using archived data and post-Dec. 26 imagery collected by European, Canadian, Indian and U.S. radar and optical Earth-observing satellites.

Imagery from the U.S.-German Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which flew in February 2000, also has been employed to help create three-dimensional flyover animations to be used to direct on-site relief teams.

Germany’s Center for Satellite-Based Crisis Information, ZKI, has been providing maps based on the imagery, as has the French space agency, CNES.

The International Space and Major Disasters Charter was activated following separate requests from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the French civil-protection service and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.

Created in November 2000 by the French, Canadian and European space agencies, the charter now includes the space and meteorological agencies of the United States, India and Argentina, with Japan and the United Nations also cooperating in the effort.

A single, confidential telephone number is available to authorized civil-protection and homeland security agencies in charter-member countries to call on a 24-hour basis to file initial requests. Once requests are verified, the participating agencies are asked to upload commands to their satellites to attempt to take imagery from the stricken region.

India, the only major space-faring nation directly affected by the tsunamis, has applied all of its satellite resources to the relief operation, according to ISRO. India sustained approximately 9,000 of the more than 150,000 deaths associated so far with the disaster.

ISRO spokesman S. Krishnamurthi, said no ISRO facilities in the tsunami-stricken area sustained damage. ISRO’s main launch facility, on Sriharikota Island in the Bay of Bengal, is on high ground some 500 meters from India’s east coast. ISRO also operates a tracking and telemetry facility at Port Blair, located on South Andaman Island near the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered tidal waves.

When the tsunami struck, none of ISRO’s main environmental satellites were over the affected area, ISRO said. But ISRO has since been using its IRS-1C, IRS-1D, Oceansat-1 and Resourcesat satellites for damage assessment, ISRO said.

ISRO also has been receiving data from the French Spot, Canadian Radarsat and European Envisat satellites as a member of the International Space and Major Disasters Charter. The satellite data is being processed at the National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad, India, and then provided to the Crisis Management Group of the Ministry of Home Affairs and State agencies.

ClearView Becomes Relief Vehicle

The U.S. government has tapped the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to gather and disseminate satellite imagery to U.S. federal agencies involved in the relief efforts. The NGA, which provides imagery and related products to U.S. military and intelligence agencies, has access to information collected by both classified U.S. government satellites and the most advanced U.S. commercial imaging satellites.

Under a program called ClearView , the NGA has multiyear purchase agreements with DigitalGlobe, Orbimage and Space Imaging, the three U.S. companies that operate commercial high-resolution imaging satellites. Dave Burpee, an NGA spokesman, said the use of the ClearView program for non-military efforts is not out of the ordinary.

“This is not beyond what we normally do with ClearView,” Burpee said. “It has been used for broad area mapping and for looking at ports. This is much more focused, but it’s not unusual for us to provide unclassified imagery of another nation’s territory.”

Burpee would not disclose how much data the NGA has distributed since the disaster, but the three companies have been extremely busy.

Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 5, for example, Orbimage of Dulles, Va., collected about 23,000 square kilometers of imagery of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand using its OrbView-3 satellite, company officials said. The satellite makes one to two passes per day over the region.

Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., has collected about 12,000 square kilometers of imagery over the area, company spokesman Mark Brender said. “The tsunami is the business in the region now,” Brender said. “Routine operations are being superseded by using every available pass to get imagery associated with the disaster.”

DigitalGlobe, Longmont, Colo., has collected about 47,000 square kilometers of imagery of the area since Dec. 26 with its QuickBird satellite, spokesman Chuck Herring said. The imagery is going to the NGA as well as resellers in the region and international aid agencies.

In some instances, the NGA is supplementing the commercial data with information gleaned from its classified satellites, Burpee said. “We can look at an area in detail and learn something about damage to a bridge or road and then transfer that information to an unclassified map,” he said.

The NGA is providing the imagery and related information to other federal government agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the U.S. Pacific Command and the U.S. Transportation Command. While the NGA does not provide imagery directly to non-U.S. agencies or governments, the licensing agreements in the ClearView contract allow U.S. federal agencies to share the data with other organizations, Burpee said.

Other U.S. government agencies also are making imagery available from their satellites.

NASA has made data collected by its satellites available via its Earth Observatory Web site, agency spokeswoman Gretchen Cook-Anderson said. “We have not gone off the natural course of satellite operations, but in that natural course of collecting data, we have imagery of areas that have been the hardest hit,” Cook-Anderson said.

The U.S. Geological Survey is providing imagery from its Landsat 7 satellite to the Department of Agriculture and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, among others, said Jay Feuquay, national coordinator of the Geological Survey’s Land Remote Sensing Program.

While Landsat 7 suffers from an instrument glitch that slightly degrades the quality of the data, “there’s still nothing like Landsat,” Feuquay said. “You can still see the [data] dropouts, but it’s very easy to do broad area assessment and see the extent of the damage.”

The Geological Survey is trying to gather all of its tsunami-related Landsat data on a single server that will be hosted at the Eros Data Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., Feuquay said.

Relinking Communications

Communications satellites also are playing a major role in the relief efforts, officials said. A significant chunk of capacity aboard Insat-3E, India’s newest communications satellite, has been dedicated to the activity, ISRO said in a press release. Very small aperture terminals have been airlifted to India’s hard-hit Andaman and Nicobar islands to re-establish communications with the mainland via Insat-3E.

In addition to facilitating coordination of relief efforts, communications satellites are being used for telemedicine, which enables doctors in modern medical facilities to monitor and assist in the treatment of patients in remote areas. Two hospitals on Port Blair, for example, have been linked via Insat-3E to specialty hospitals on the mainland for medical consultations, ISRO said.

France, meanwhile, has made available three Inmarsat satellite communications ground stations to permit on-site rescue teams to give medical assistance under the supervision of doctors through live satellite video links, CNES announced. CNES has an existing agreement with Indocomputech, a private telemedicine company in India, to link Indian hospitals and disaster areas.