Brazilian deforestation and melting polar ice caps are feeding a boom in demand in the $2.1 billion market for satellite data, images and services used to monitor the planet.
More images means more satellites and that need has spurred the development of the European Space Agency’s Vega rocket, which lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana, today at about 7 a.m. local time and released nine satellites into orbit on its maiden flight.
“We’re adding this smaller brother to our launchers as there is more and more demand for Earth observation,” Franco Bonacina, a spokesman for the Paris-based ESA, said in an interview. “There is an increased need to keep an eye on the environment.”
European Aeronautic, Defense & Space Co.’s Astrium unit and e-GEOS, controlled by Telespazio, the satellite-services venture of Finmeccanica SpA (FNC) and Thales SA (HO), are among companies working with governments and international organizations on environmental monitoring. They got a fillip when envoys at the United Nation’s latest talks in Durban, South Africa, agreed to aim for a 2015 deal to cut carbon emissions.
Data sales and value-added services from Earth-observation satellites may more than double to $4.5 billion in the decade ending 2020, according to Northern Sky Research. Part of the growth may come from tracking deforestation, which the UN says makes up 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate envoys have made reducing forestry emissions a crucial component of the global talks.
Vega was designed to place small satellites made for science and planet observation. Today’s main payload was the Italian space agency ASI’s LARES laser relativity satellite, which is designed to measure the Lense-Thirring effect, part of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The next satellite launch, set for the end of the year or beginning of 2013, will be the Proba-V -- where V stands for vegetation -- to monitor tree coverage and forests, Bonacina said.
Vega performed as planned, ESA said in a statement, and conducted a “flawless qualification flight.”
“The planet needs a checkup and satellites are the best instrument to pursue it,” said Axel Oddone, head of multi- mission data access at e-GEOS. “Environmental monitoring has grown very strongly in the past few years, and I expect this trend to accelerate. Durban has contributed to an awakening on environmental issues among governments.”
Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, uses satellites to detail how deforestation is driven and is open to helping other developing countries do likewise, Brazilian lead climate negotiator Ambassador Andre Correa do Lago said in an interview in Durban.
“Satellite monitoring is key to the conservation of forests,” he said.
By combining hundreds of images from satellite coverage with software analysis, experts can analyze patterns of deforestation down to a single tree and calculate the emissions resulting from removing trees that would otherwise sequester carbon dioxide.
Once countries know their baseline deforestation rate, they can measure efforts to lower it and be rewarded by international programs. Climate envoys are working to raise $100 billion of annual funding by 2020 for climate protection and emissions reduction projects in developing nations.
“In the short term, emerging markets are not generating profits for us but in perspective they will need services to fight deforestation and will allocate significant resources to get these data,” Didier Rigal, head of sustainable development at Astrium Services, said in an interview. “A potentially big market related to the carbon economy will open up. Forests are a hot topic even if it’s a long-route to make it profitable.”
Satellites also serve to step up surveillance of illegal logging, said Mark Brender, executive director of the GeoEye Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by GeoEye Inc. (GEOY)
“Satellites are like a silent watchman in space looking down on Earth,” Brender said, citing a project to unveil rosewood trafficking and illegally sourced timber in Madagascar.
Gabon, Nigeria, DRC
One developing country that’s tapping satellite intelligence is the African republic of Gabon. President Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba in 2010 set up AGEOS, a national space observation agency that will also monitor the environment in 20 neighboring nations, including Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The knowledge of our environment is thanks mainly to satellites,” the project’s chief, Aboubakar Mambimba, said in a phone interview from Gabon’s capital, Libreville. “It gives us knowledge on the state of our forests, our water resources and helps us implement effective policies to preserve the environment.”
Astrium and France’s development agency are working with Congo Basin countries such as Cameroon and Gabon to monitor forest cover. A website with more than 600 satellite images is available for projects to reduce emissions from deforestation and promote sustainable logging.
Companies are increasingly asked to comply with requirements put in place by local governments for environment protection, boosting demand for data and services, said Claude Rousseau, a Strasbourg, France-based analyst at Northern Sky Research.
Declining Sea Ice
As well as monitoring deforestation, a cause of global warming, satellites are used to observe its effects. In the Arctic, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center uses orbiting instruments to track the declining sea ice. Instruments and satellites built by Astrium, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Japan’s NEC Corp. are all part of the effort. Satellites can also track glaciers, coastal erosion and ocean currents.
“Climate change monitoring goes beyond measuring carbon in the atmosphere,” said Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Arlington, Virginia. “We must have global, long-term data and information to help us understand how a change in one part of the world may impact another.”