Volcano eruption tracker: How satellites have TRANSFORMED natural disaster response

Violent events from volcanic eruptions to typhoons and forest fires have been responsible for widespread destruction and loss of life throughout human history. However, the use of cutting-edge satellite tech is now transforming how such natural disasters can be tackled.

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Paul Kostek, Senior Member of the Institute of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), believes there is a palpable ‘difference’ in how and why satellites are being deployed.

We’ve seen attempts being made in places where there have been dramatic events taking place, hurricanes, typhoons, those types of things

Paul Kostek

He told Express.co.uk: “The difference today is … we’ve seen attempts being made in places where there have been dramatic events taking place, hurricanes, typhoons, those types of things, that people are using these satellites for access to provide communications and information about what’s going on.

“And I think people are also looking at these satellites as a means to track things.

“When we had the fires in the Amazon going on earlier this year, satellite imagery was able to be passed on to people to give a sense of how dramatic the fires were, versus what people were perceiving from either political input or others that these are serious events.

“And of course, satellites are also frequently used for remote sensing of following the weather of what’s going on in terms of threats to cities, or countries in terms of large storms.”

The Advisory Systems Engineer for Base 2 Solutions also believes satellites will also play a growing role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Kostek said: “We’re also seeing people starting to use satellite imagery to ask the question, especially with COVID-19 going worldwide, ‘what are the impacts?’

“Can you fly over parking lots of buildings and understand how many people are at work or are at a shopping mall?

“Or are there large groups of people transiting somewhere because they are caught-up in either a COVID or some other type of pandemic that might be impacting people as they try to move on to find food, water or medical care.”

But the monitoring of natural disasters from orbit is not the only way satellite use is changing.

Mr Kostek argues there is a clear and ‘dramatic’ trend towards smaller and cheaper satellites, in addition to playing a revolutionary new role.

He said: “What we’re seeing differently today, obviously, is the technologies for satellites have improved dramatically.

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“The ability to make smaller satellites cheaper, makes a big difference in terms of being able to launch those and of course launch capability has changed dramatically.

“We see that with SpaceX here in the states, where we now have a company that is running its own business in terms of launching commercial satellites to other ventures.

“They’re also working for NASA, but they’re also launching their own satellites for their Starlink constellation they’re putting up.

“Amazon is also doing the same business and they also have a launch platform that they’re associated with. Jeff Bezos has investments in Blue Origin.”

However, despite the unquestionable benefits of next generation satellites, Mr Kostek argues the sheer numbers of man-made objects in orbit underlines the need for closer collaboration between different space agencies.

He said: “I think we’re at a point where it’s going to have to be a discussion beyond just companies saying we’re putting up all these satellites to start, whether it’s the United Nations or other inter government agencies coming together to ask ‘how are we going to manage all of these satellites?’

“There have been a couple of instances that have already taken place where a Starlink satellite actually came within a close proximity of a European Space Agency satellite, and there was a kind of kind of a communications breakdown.

“Though some of these commercial agencies and organisations are going to have to figure out how they work closer with government agencies to manage the satellites, both in orbit in terms of how they impact what goes on on the earth, but also to ensure traffic control in space so you don’t have satellites colliding with one another.

“And I think those are some things that are going to have to still be worked-out – people have not started those discussions yet.

“Just because you can put satellites up doesn’t mean you can just do that without considering the impact you might have on other organisations’ operations.”

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