Earth Observation Market and Services
MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT
Let me begin by hoping that all of you are safe and well in the face of the continuing Pandemic. While we are not out of the woods yet, we are cautiously optimistic that this year we will finally break free and are therefore planning to hold our annual conference and exhibition: APSCC 2022 on October 18 – 20 in Seoul under the theme ‘Reuniting the Space Industry’. It is not too early to start making your plans for what promises to be a justly deserved celebration of our industry and the first major satellite and space focused event in Asia.
This month our magazine is devoted to the Asian Earth Observation (EO) market and services. This is another success story that is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 9% per year over the coming decade according to Shivaprakash Muruganana, a consultant with NSR.
NSR analysis shows over $4.7B has been invested in the commercial EO market over the last decade and projects cumulative revenues of about $62B for EO data and derived products over the next ten years. To supply this capability they forecast that over 1,500 satellites will be launched in the coming decade. Shivaprakash details the variety of industries, applications, markets and the wide array of EO sensors that continue to expand. His piece explores the interest from the climate community, satellite big data, EO-based analytics, use by investment firms, and a deep dive into plethora of new business models – data and services via subscriptions, platform-as-a-service, pay-per-pass or by time, single purchase, bulk purchase, insights-as-a-service etc!
Then we have a terrific article by Blaine Curcio, Founder, Orbital Gateway Consulting and Zhong Xing, Chief Engineer at CGSTL that offers a wide ranging review of the entire Chinese remote sensing market and history. Additionally, the piece delves into the creation and growth of Chang Guang Satellite Technology Ltd (CGSTL) which both manufactures remote sensing satellites and operates its own, growing, constellation. There is a fascinating discussion of the “Two 1:1 Ratios” which seeks to rebalance the problem of having a satellite platform which is more expensive than its payload and addresses the future imbalance in the cost of the launch services and ground segment.
Jara Villanueva, Remote Sensing Specialist at Axelspace Corporation has written an interesting article about Axelspace and AxelGlobe, and Japan’s Space Industry Vision 2030 — where Japan is set to double its market size to $21B by early 2030. Axelspace is a smallsat manufacturer and AxelGlobe is a global EO operator with a focus on the farming industry and environmental monitoring. They also have developed a disaster management and emergency response system which is utilized throughout the disaster management operation cycle and not just post-event.
Finally, we have an interview with Massimo Comparini, Deputy CEO and Senior Executive VP, Observation, Exploration and Navigation for Thales Alenia Space (TAS) and CEO of Thales Alenia Space Italia. Massimo talks about a wide-range of TAS EO activities both on the satellite manufacturing and services side of the business and discusses the UN 2030 Agenda on sustainable development, their role in the Copernicus program, meteorology, synthentic-aperture radar and delivering reliable geospatial information. I particularly liked TAS’s vision motto: “Space for Life.”
If you want to better understand the latest satellite EO trends in Asia and around the world then read on.
Please stay safe and see you in Seoul in October!
Earth Observation Market and Services
Shivaprakash Muruganandham, Consultant, NSR
Investments in the Earth Observation (EO) and related downstream analytics markets has increased in recent years, with 2021 more than doubling thanks to several satellite operators that announced plans to go public via SPAC (Special-Purpose Acquisition Company) routes.
The commercial EO market is becoming increasingly competitive, with an ever-growing diversity in business models that offer satellite imagery in different spatial, temporal and spectral resolutions. NSR’s Satellite-based Earth Observation, 13th Edition research report forecasts that banking off these trends, a cumulative revenue opportunity of nearly $62 billion for EO data and derived products is expected during the next ten years.
To leverage this revenue stream, NSR analysis shows over $4.7B has been invested in the commercial EO market through the last decade, with more than 34% of it in the last year alone. Downstream activities that used satellite EO/remote sensing and data analytics demonstrated an accelerated potential as growth markets during the early phases of COVID-19 related lockdowns. Times of geopolitical conflict only serve to increase the focus on satellite-derived competitive GEOINT (geospatial intelligence), driving demand from government and military organizations for satellite data and analytics.
Furthermore, the supply of EO data is forecast to increase tremendously, with NSR also forecasting over 1,500 satellites to launch in the coming decade. More players are chasing after an untapped market comprised of demand for continuous monitoring and data analytics at high revisit rates and even higher resolution. There is an expectation that once Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations are in full operations, the EO market will attract more customers and more potential uses of the data via advanced analytics and machine learning (ML) algorithms. A “build it and they will come” approach is taking hold on the EO market.
NSR analysis further shows the satellite-based EO data and services market in Asia to be the third largest, behind North America and Europe through the coming decade, with an expected CAGR of 9.3%. Like in much of the rest of the world, over 50% of this opportunity is expected to be driven by government and military demand: GEOINT for national defense and intelligence institutions, and sustainability and development related applications from civilian government organizations.
Diverse Range of Market Applications
While Defense and Civilian Government applications will continue to drive the bulk of demand and revenues throughout this period, there is significant growth opportunity in the commercial markets, particularly for downstream big data solutions.
Markets such as energy and managed living resources have well entrenched EO ecosystems, having adopted it much earlier into their business processes. However, customer friction still exists, especially outside of a few key major buyers and this is an untapped market driving opportunity for most upcoming operators and analytics service providers.
Of particular interest here is the BFSI vertical (Banking, Financial Services and Insurance), which consists of financial institutions involved in the securitization of commodities and hedge funds, where large risks are at play. This market segment is expected to grow the fastest, at a CAGR of 13.7% through the coming decade. As new non-imaging datasets and weather data undergo commercialization, the weather vertical is also expected to grow in the mid-to-late forecast period.
The increased investment in new data types enabled by such unique sensors is also forecast to boost demand in the long term, leveraging data from thermal infrared (TIR), microwave (MW), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), radio occultation (RO), hyperspectral operators, amongst others. Currently, this market is nascent and driven by early contracts and preliminary, niche data demand from players such as GHGSat, HE360, Spire, etc. There is growth opportunity forecast in the provision of downstream apps and derived information products in the long-term, while data will remain a key growth factor in the near- to mid-term.
In Asia, there is increasing interest in the use of satellite imagery for a variety of solutions: ranging from building climate resiliency in rural neighborhoods to river basin flood management and disaster risk assessments in various countries. The diversity of applications in regions of South and South-East Asia is driven by the large variety in land utilization and ecological regimes, giving rise to innovative business models that attempt to reach new customer segments.
Downstream Analytics is the Money Maker
A majority of the growth from these markets is attributed to the proliferation of EO-based analytics in recent years. Investment firms looking to gain a competitive edge on the market have driven the use of satellite data across the board: from the counting of cars in parking lots and oil barrels to derived vegetation metrics for crop yield and carbon stocks, firms such as Ursa Space Systems, Decartes Labs, Rezatec and Orbital Insight help investors pick the right commodities.
Financial products built on monitoring economic activity already abound in the market: including notable ones such as SpaceKnow’s China Satellite Manufacturing Index that tracks manufacturing activity in China, or RS Metrics’ MetalSignals, which predicts price and inventory movements on the London Metals Exchange.
Climate Focus Intensifies Demand
COP26 in late 2021 saw several plans and promises being announced to address the climate crisis, many that touched upon themes related to deforestation, ocean resource protection and carbon emissions, among others. Countries agreed on rules for international carbon markets, pledged to end deforestation and land degradation, and to cut down on methane emissions. In recent years, we have seen further interest in climate-related finance and investment vehicles. At the same time, technology adoption in the satellite industry has improved tremendously: from higher resolution sensors with next-gen capabilities to cloud-based geospatial solutions.
This interest from the climate community is expected to be a key driver for the EO market. Energy players, for instance, have little incentive to measure and monitor carbon emissions, or track fuel efficiency beyond its impact to the bottom line. This push comes primarily from current and upcoming regulations that hold such commercial players accountable at various levels and drives the use of geospatial analytics through a combination of open-source datasets, in addition to commercial satellite imagery. Updates to the carbon emission regulations in Europe are expected to push interest in satellite data driven monitoring solutions, bringing in demand from Oil & Gas players for leak detection, and from mining and utilities players to track greenhouse gas emissions.
Several countries made pledges toward ocean action to protect coastal and marine habitats, and these too can be mapped to a variety of use cases for satellite data, including, but not limited to decarbonization of the shipping industry and blue finance initiatives. These are direct drivers of revenue opportunity in the satellite EO and big data industry, particularly in the Services, Infrastructure and Civilian Government verticals.
The satellite big data market is comprised of different verticals with different types of distribution networks and channels. In most cases, it sits at the meeting point of vertical expertise and big data/cloud/data science “know how”. Rising climate concerns, as discussed above, drive the need for satellite data-intensive solutions across these verticals, ranging from agriculture and water management to carbon offset markets for supply chain traceability and insurance services that incorporate weather/climate information.
EO players are more aware of customer pain points, and adopting new business models, most notably, that of offering data and services via subscriptions. Cloud adoption too is on the rise, with growing interest from cloud computing majors. Moreover, platform-as-a-service, applications and marketplace models have grown in number recently. For most up and coming EO data providers, persistence, global coverage and revisit frequencies remain the main selling points. Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) regulatory requirements is another key segment and is expected to drive the opportunity for satellite-based climate monitoring solutions in the coming years.
Business Models Need to Evolve
To tap into upcoming opportunity however, business models and the EO landscape must evolve. Breaking away from a government and defense-oriented market will need a diverse range of solutions and channels for the delivery of EO data. The way EO business is handled now requires effort that goes into customized contracts and purchases that have inherently long sales/procurement cycles. Product/ service offerings vary quite a bit currently, leading to two key challenges that have constrained the revenue opportunity: a lack of standardization, and inconsistent pricing of data across the market.
The market is evolving, as new and emerging service models enter the EO arena. More investment is being pumped into models such as pay-per-pass, data subscriptions, insights-as-a-service, application-agnostic analytics platforms and data marketplaces. While most single purchase EO price listing mentions the traditional $/km2 metric, there is a push to shift contract pricing toward alternative subscription-based models.
Data Downlink: Evolution of the Ground Segment
Delivery modes for satellite imagery are changing, and multiple operators are shooting for a data subscription model as mentioned above. Platforms and marketplaces are on the rise, attempting to breakdown the traditionally opaque model of how EO data is sold. Getting closer to the customer, whether in the energy, agriculture, insurance markets is important for operators and downstream analytics providers alike. Understanding end customer requirements and meeting them to spec will be a key factor in differentiating the winners. As such, geospatial intelligence tools are fast become a component of existing big data applications. Given such a diverse ecosystem, the cloud is an essential foundation for each layer in the EO demand stack.
At the same time, recent announcements from major cloud service providers entering the ground station business have brought a fresh wave of interest. New Space players such as RBC Signals have made a business out of taking advantage of spare capacity on existing antennas and continue to expand their presence fueled by funding rounds.
The need for high volume downlink at lower costs by new satellite operators are driving investments into improving and automated services that take advantage of shared antenna infrastructure. Pricing models too are changing. While the traditional pricing per satellite pass metric still has its place, pricing per minute is on the rise as well. Ground service providers are currently either augmenting or revamping their capabilities. Virtualization at all layers will be the most effective way to meet emerging EO data requirements in the market. Offering these data providers a seamless cloud-based experience via easier APIs and autonomous satellite contact scheduling will be key, and this has led to increased adoption of cloud-based services across the earth observation market.
The Bottom Line
The EO data market is on the cusp of accelerated growth, and it will certainly be interesting to see all the new data types and applications that satellite players will bring to market in the coming years. For the business models to close however, moving away from CAPEX intensive towards lower OPEX type cash flows will be imperative, both in space and on the ground.
The traditional Gov/Mil market continue to reign supreme in terms of demand, with interest in the commercial markets being fragmented and challenged by a lack of standardization of data and solutions. On the other hand, the landscape is shifting, as service models evolve in the form of aggregators and platforms aimed at driving interest from the untapped commercial market.
Infrastructure development will be essential, both on ground and in space, for newer subscription- and cloud-based models to grow. However, the market is still far from commercialization, and the untapped markets will remain just that: untapped, unless such a shift makes its way throughout the EO landscape.
Shivaprakash Muruganandham has done Consulting work for NSR since 2018. His areas of expertise cover the earth observation, satellite big data, optical satcom, cloud computing and emerging space markets. Prior to this, he was a systems engineer in the automotive industry, following a Master’s education in Space Technology and Robotics. During this time, he took up various assignments, ranging from control systems design to machine learning applied over satellite data. His main interests are in the broad areas of climate, conservation and development, and the application of satellite/space technologies for the same.
Observations on the Chinese Remote Sensing Market
Blaine Curcio, Founder, Orbital Gateway Consulting, and Zhong Xing, Chief Engineer at CGSTL
China’s space sector has undergone rapid changes since 2014, when the Central Government published Document 60, which opened certain parts of the sector to private investment. In the 8 years since, more than 100 Chinese commercial space companies have raised upwards of ¥32 billion, according to Euroconsult’s China Space Industry Report. While verticals such as launch have received most of the media attention, other verticals have seen equally impressive growth, and are seeing highly competitive and increasingly global companies emerge. These sectors include satellite applications, TT&C, and as we will discuss today, remote sensing.
A Brief History of Remote Sensing in China
Like all parts of the Chinese space sector, the remote sensing industry was dominated by the state until 2014. However, unlike other verticals such as launch or satellite communications, remote sensing has for many years involved many very powerful stakeholders, rather than just a few state-owned conglomorates. Many readers will have heard of the Gaofen, Fengyun, Ziyuan, and Gaojing constellations of satellites, all of which have been deployed by China (and in the case of Ziyuan, jointly with Brazil), but most likely, few readers know the history of these constellations.
In short, most of China’s major remote sensing constellations before 2014 were launched with very clear anchor users in mind, and in many cases, were jointly designed and operated by those end users. These end users include several major institutions, namely:
- National Earth Observation System and Data Center (operator of Gaofen-1 02/03/04, as well as Gaofen-2 to 7)
- National Meteorological Satellite Center (Fengyun)
- Land Resources Satellite Application Center (Ziyuan)
- National Oceanic Satellite Application Center (Haiyang)
- Ecological and Environmental Satellite Application Center (Huanjing)
All of these entities are huge government players, and all of them have a specific purpose for the satellites that they have launched over the years. In total, the 5 entities have seen more than 30 (mostly large, turnkey) remote sensing satellites launched, and across broad spectra of Chinese life and economy, they have utilized these satellites to improve efficiency, gather more accurate data, and develop applications. New such satellites continue to launch, such as the large Gaofen Multi-Mode high-resolution satellite launched in July 2020.
While these satellites are still in place, and while the aforementioned government entities are all still big consumers of remote sensing data, after 2014 we have seen an explosion in Chinese commercial remote sensing companies, to where today, the number of satellites being launched by commercial remote sensing companies is greater than the number being launched by the state (though the state is still launching on average significantly larger satellites).
As these commercial satellites are launched, there will undoubtedly come many opportunities, but also challenges. Remote sensing monetization is a tricky business, and customer readiness remains low across many verticals. With that said, there are huge markets in China, including provincial and city-level governments, which will provide fertile training grounds for the country’s commercial remote sensing players before scaling up and going international.
Opening Up the Remote Sensing Sector
China’s remote sensing sector started to see private investment in 2014, along with other verticals such as launch and satellite manufacturing. Since that time, the country has seen dozens of commercial companies emerge across the entire remote sensing value chain, from manufacturing to operation to data analytics services.
On the manfucturing side of the sector, companies such as Spacety, MinoSpace, CGSTL, Zero Gravity Labs, Galaxy Space, and Commsat have to varying degrees focused on developing remote sensing manufacturing (and in some cases operational) capabilities. Companies such as CGSTL extend across most of the remote sensing value chain, whereas others such as MinoSpace are much more focused on manufacturing, and to a far lesser extent on operating and commercializing EO data. The common theme across all manufacturers has been batch manufacturing of increasingly complex satellites.
Other companies such as Guodian Gaoke and ADASpace are more focused on operating constellatons, with both companies having launched >10 remote sensing and IoT satellites, usually made by other satellite manufacturers. Newer constellations like Qilu and Tianxian (operated by the Shandong Institute of Industry and Research, and Spacety/CETC 38th Instute, respectively) are eyeing their own market niches.
Meanwhile, several established remote sensing players have somewhat pivoted elsewhere. Both 21st Century Aerospace Technology (21AT) and Zhuhai Orbita—two of China’s earliest commercial companies to get involved in remote sensing—have seen a decrease in their launch cadence in recent years. In the case of Zhuhai Orbita, the company appears to have shifted focus towards space-related semiconductors while maintaining a handful of EO satellites, and in the case of 21AT, they had previously purchased satellites from SSTL of the UK, with this now less desirable due to improving domestic alternatives and an increasingly competitive remote sensing market.
On the downstream side of the industry, the Chinese market remains fragmented, with several dozen remote sensing data analytics companies having been founded over the past ~10 years. These companies tend to be locally-focused—think startup coming out of a local university, selling remote sensing data analytics services to provincial bureaus of forestry or to cities for urban planning—but are more recently thinking on a bigger scale, and selling their solutions to more typically commercial customers such as insurance companies.
On the whole, the remote sensing market in China is comprised of easily >100 companies, if we consider all upstream and downstream players, and is growing at a rapid pace, partly enabled by a huge increase in available data and significant funding from both private and public sources. With that said, moving forward, there is more growth to come, as China still has much room to optimize areas such as agriculture. Of all the commercial companies in the Chinese remote sensing industry, arguably the most impressive in terms of comprehensive industry capabilities, is a company you might never have heard of—Chang Guang Satellite Technology Limited (CGSTL).
Brief History of CGSTL
CGSTL was founded in December 2014 in Changchun, Jilin Province. As is the case with many commercial space companies in China, CGSTL is in fact a spinoff company from a state-run entity, in this case the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Changchun Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics. The company is an excellent example of the trifecta in the Chinese commercial space sector of money/resources from 1) “National Team” entities, i.e. CASC, CASIC, CAS, etc., 2) Provincial/City-level government, and 3) Commercial/private sector.
Located in China’s Northeast (Dongbei) Region, the company is just over 7 years old, but its founding team has been working together in the CAS for more than 20 years. This means that the technical expertise, and in some cases infrastructure and resources, are greater than what one might expect for such a relatively new company. The company’s broad remote sensing capabilities put them in the conversation of the world’s leading comprehensive remote sensing companies, with capabilities across manufacturing, operation, and downstream commercialization and analysis of data.
One of the World’s Leading Pure-Play Remote Sensing Companies?
Figure 2 CGSTL’s R&D Facility in Changchun, Jilin ProvinceCGSTL has built and launched more than 40 of its own remote sensing satellites, the largest of which was more than 1 ton, and has built and sold remote sensing satellites to other companies. As a manufacturer, the company has impressive capabilities, with capacity of more than 100 satellites per year at Asia’s largest remote sensing satellite industrial base, built with support from the Jilin Municipal Government. CGSTL operates its own satellites as part of its Jilin-1 constellation, and has built a remote sensing “data mall” as a B2B, or in some cases B2C offering. With a historical focus on multispectral and panchromatic remote sensing, the company has also branched out into hyperspectral and video satellites, and more recently, one of the company’s executives hinted at plans to develop communication satellite production capabilities.
In terms of financials, CGSTL is one of the wealthiest commercial space companies in China. With initial backing from the CAS and Jilin City, CGSTL has built a large business that has caught the attention of other investors. In late 2020, the company announced a ¥2.46 billion (around US$375M) “pre-IPO” funding round, which is the largest funding round ever completed by a Chinese commercial space company. More recently, CGSTL announced plans for their IPO, which is expected to occur sometime in 2022 on the Shanghai Stock Exchange STAR MARKET (Sci-Tech innovation Board, or 科创板), a innovation-focused stock exchange in Shanghai. The funding from an IPO will likely be used to complete CGSTL’s Jilin-1 constellation, of which the company has already deployed ~1/3.
CGSTL’s Jilin-1 Constellation
The first Jilin-1 satellite was launched in 2015, and CGSTL has since launched more than 40 Jilin-1 satellites. The constellation has three goals, 1) to increase the revisit capability over hotspots, 2) shorten the coverage period of large areas, and 3) acquire multi-dimensional information. To realize all three goals requires a variety of satellites, and CGSTL has been developing many of them based on these three goals.
First, constellation revisit capability is improved with more satellites, and ideally these satellites would be smaller, cheaper, and easy to build in batches. That being the case, CGSTL developed the Gaofen-03 platform (GF03, Gaofen meaning high resolution), weighing some tens of kg. The company has recently started producing the GF03 in batches, including a batch of 9x sent into orbit on a single recent Long March launch.
For reaching the second goal of reduction of coverage period of large areas, satellites with a narrow field of view are not optimal, and so CGSTL has developed larger satellites, such as the KF (Kuanfu, or 宽幅) satellites, weighing up to 1.2 tons. The 150km swath at 0.5m resolution achievable by KF satellites is the widest of any submeter remote sensing satellite in the world.
Rounding out CGSTL’s constellation goals, for acquiring information from multiple sources, the company has also launched video and 19-band multispectral satellites.
Having acquired significant technological knowhow and experience through developing and launching dozens of remote sensing satellites using various technologies, CGSTL is now turning its attention to an even more ambitious challenge—bringing remote sensing technology and its potential benefits to 7 billion people.
Bringing Remote Sensing to 7 billion people
CGSTL has made a number of iterative improvements over the course of developing and launching several dozen satellites, specifically developing a “payload-centered, platform-less design”. As the traditional platform-based satellite is large and expensive, the first generation of CGSTL’s payload-centered satellites had significantly reduced the size and weight while thoroughly integrating the electronics.
The newly developed platform-less design was first demonstrated on Jilin-01-GF03A satellite launched in 2019, with the satellite design fully dominated by the payload, without individual platform structures, and with electronics that are highly integrated within the rest of the satellite. Using this integrated, payload-focused design, a current-generation 45kg GF03 satellite can achieve a resolution of 0.75m.
Having integrated a variety of satellites using different technologies, CGSTL studied and optimized input costs and created its own method of project cost estimates, namely the “Two 1:1 Ratios”. CGSTL saw cost imbalances for traditional large satellite systems, where the platform is usually more expensive than the payload, and the cost of the launch vehicle and ground segments are only a small part in the entire system.
Thus, the “Two 1:1 Ratios”, the cost ratio of the payload and the platform is 1:1, while the cost ratio of the satellite and its launch system is also 1:1, i.e. for a given mission cost, launch + ground segment will cost 50%, and satellite and payload will cost 25% each. In this case, the satellite and payload cost will be based on the cost of launch and ground segments, and the satellite design and optimization work will be done within these finite cost parameters. Through technological advancement, overall system cost has been reduced, strengthening CGSTL’s ability to offer good value-for-money.
CGSTL’s “Two 1:1 Ratios” philosophy extends to the company’s larger satellites as well. As a company that wants to have comprehensive remote sensing capabilities, CGSTL acknowledges that bigger is not always better, but sometimes, you do need a big remote sensing satellite. And at the same time, there is not always strength in numbers, but sometimes, it’s good to have many small satellites.
The same can be said about the Chinese remote sensing sector more broadly, with a plethora of companies trying out many different types of technologies, developing at a rapid pace.
What’s Next for China’s Commercial Remote Sensing Sector?
China’s space industry continues to grow rapidly, and different verticals have different levels of openness to commercial firms. Taking for example LEO communications, China will most likely deploy a large LEO broadband constellation in the next decade. That said, given the role of telecoms in China, a LEO broadband constellation will probably be fairly centralized, with the state-owned China Satellite Networks Limited the likely operator.
Remote sensing is a little bit different. With less need for one centralized system, we are likely to see multiple commercial constellations deployed over the coming years. In the case of CGSTL, the company plans up to 300 satellites by the middle of the decade, an upgrade from their previous goal of a 138-satellite constellation by the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2025).
As these companies deploy inherently global constellations, there will be a lot of data, and a lot of potential for users in non-Chinese regions to benefit from that data. With that being said, as we have seen elsewhere, commercial remote sensing presents various challenges, including low customer readiness across many verticals, and difficulty in justifying paid data over free data. Moving forward, there is no question that Chinese commercial companies will be producing significantly more EO data. A bigger question mark, however, is if they build it, how much demand will come?
Blaine CURCIO is Founder of Hong Kong-based Orbital Gateway Consulting, and Affiliate Senior Consultant with Euroconsult. Blaine works at the intersection of China and the space sector, focusing on competitive dynamics, overall development, and international opportunities in the context of the Chinese Space Sector. Blaine also works as a satcom industry consultant, having formerly worked for satellite operator SES, and for multiple industry research groups over more than 10 years.
Dr. Zhong Xing started his research on Payload-Centered optical satellite design in 2006, and got his PhD with major in optical engineering at CAS in 2009. He worked in CIOMP, CAS during 2009~2014, and took part in the work for founding Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd (CGSTL). Currently, he is the vice president and chief engineer of CGSTL, and also a professor in the University of CAS.
Space within Everyone’s Reach: How Axelspace and AxelGlobe Empower People to Make Space Data-driven Decisions
Jara Villanueva, Remote Sensing Specialist, Axelspace Corporation
Under its Space Industry Vision 2030, Japan has set to double its market size to 21 billion dollars by early 2030. One of the significant parts of Japan’s Basic Plan on Space Policy is to achieve economic growth by increasing support for new business creation and improving accessibility and utilization of satellite data. In line with this plan, there are two main segments to focus on: the upstream and the downstream market. While the upstream segment of the market focuses on the development of space equipment such as rockets and satellites, the downstream segment emphasizes space utilization or services such as earth observation and satellite communication.
Conventionally, old space companies or established companies have dominated the upstream segment. However, due to the recent boost of government support for space business development, a number of new space companies, start-ups included, have begun to enter both upstream and downstream segments of the market. As the number of space startups increases in Japan, the range of operating fields also advances – this includes but is not limited to earth observations (Axelspace, Canon, iQPS, and Synspective), space debris removal (Astroscale), space propulsion (Pale Blue), space exploration (iSpace), space travel (PD Aerospace and Space Walker), satellite communication (Infostellar), and artificial shooting star (ALE).
From upstream technology to downstream applications
While Axelspace started with a focus on microsatellite development for private companies upon its establishment in 2008, the launch of its own five-microsatellite constellation (GRUS-1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, and 1E) and the creation of its next-generation Earth observation platform, AxelGlobe, strengthened its foothold in the global earth observation industry.
Figure 1: A quick look inside the AxelGlobe platform where users can access GRUS-1 data imagery
With more than 50 partners globally, the company has started accelerating its downstream operations by expanding its product lineups to make space technology more accessible to everyone. By providing a wide range of services — such as satellite capture tasking and monitoring, satellite image archives, custom captures, and capture reservations — at a relatively lower cost, it can cover a wide range of industries with varying levels of use cases and needs. This will be further strengthened with the release of more GRUS microsatellites to complete a nine-satellite constellation in the near future.
Empowering people in making space data-driven decisions
The GRUS-1 data products can be utilized to cover different application domains, with image specifications including a multispectral sensor (R, G, B, RE, and NIR), 2.5 m spatial resolution, and a 55 km observation range. One of the advantages of medium- to high-resolution satellite imagery is its ability to cover large areas with spatial resolution sufficiently enough for operation reinforcement at a reasonable cost. Generally, macroscale monitoring using satellite imagery can help industries that have large areas of interest with limited manpower and access to the site. By identifying specific key areas requiring immediate attention, these users would largely reduce their ground operations by simply identifying specific hotspots for microscale monitoring. As such, we aim to transform how we offer solutions to various industries such as agriculture, forest, urban, infrastructure, disaster, and environmental monitoring applications.
- Agriculture application
One of the main objectives in helping the farming industry through remote sensing analysis is to increase and maximize its production yield while minimizing risks and operational costs. This encompasses the entire agricultural system process from pre-season planning, planting, and in-season preparation, up to harvesting. In between these steps of the farming cycle, satellite imagery has much to offer including multi-temporal crop monitoring, disease or drought detection, identification of unutilized farm lots, and even yield prediction and estimation. A sample case is the utilization of agricultural areas to maximize yield and productivity by identifying low-performing areas (those classified as not planted pixels in the imagery) and determining what causes this situation. Typically, these low-performing areas are candidates for further ground checking to understand the situation and plan accordingly.
Figure 2: Images (A) and (B) show a comparison of two maps classified according to planting status (planted and non-planted farm areas) between two different captures. Image (C) demonstrates the changes in planting status between these two capture periods.
By incorporating the concept of precision agriculture through the use of spatial imagery into conventional farming management, not only can they make data-derived decisions, but they can also obtain an understanding of the changes in their farm areas throughout the entire crop cycle. With that, they can plan and mitigate the risks for the next season. Small changes in their methods, such as a more efficient ground monitoring route strategy or sustainable regulation of irrigation and fertilizer amount application, can significantly improve their operation. In effect, this would increase yield and productivity while maintaining sustainability throughout the farm cycle.
- Environmental monitoring through multi-temporal Land Use/Land Cover (LULC) detection
Large-scale environmental management and monitoring can greatly benefit from the use of satellite imagery. These areas of interest not only include mostly extensive surface cover but also involve the identification of existing LULC types and how their changes vary and affect each other through multiple periods. Different kinds of LULC categories can be extracted and monitored from satellite imagery depending on the use case. This can involve forest cover change such as degradation and reforestation, coastal area monitoring, and environmental impact assessment such as vegetation disturbance, among others.
Below is a sample application of multi-temporal LULC detection of watershed sedimentation in a reservoir. In this use case, the rate of sedimentation increase in the area is mapped in reference to the other land cover types such as water cover, bare soil, and sparse and dense vegetation. This analysis is particularly useful in the proper management of the watershed reservoir as sedimentation might negatively impact the area through the loss of reservoir storage and, eventually, affect the dam’s safety. This will enable stakeholders to swiftly take the necessary measures to mitigate these risks and prevent untoward incidents.
Figure 3: Images (A), (B), and (C) were captured in three different periods, showing noticeable changes in LULC through time. Image (D) visualizes the changes in land cover between the first two periods, while Image (E) shows the changes in land cover between the second and third capture periods.
- Disaster management and emergency response
The role of earth observation in emergency response is further strengthened if it is utilized throughout the disaster management operation cycle and not just post-event. This means we can use it from preparation and mitigation to the actual event, leading to the post-disaster by capturing the area before and after the event. The ability to identify significant changes before and after the disaster using satellite imagery is crucial to ensuring a more efficient response and recovery. This applies to most types of disaster events such as flooding and landslides, earthquakes, oil spill crises, and volcano eruptions. One of AxelGlobe’s services is an emergency capture that has previously enabled several government agencies to conduct timely damage assessment and response. The ability to visualize what is happening on the ground, where access is limited or impossible, empowers anyone to make data-driven and informed decisions for immediate response.
Figure 4: A pre-landslide event is shown in (A); the post-landslide event is in (B)
As Axelspace launches more next-generation satellites in the coming years, capture revisits will significantly increase and more satellite imagery will be available at a low cost. This can strengthen solutions requiring high multi-temporal resolution requirements. By reducing one of the major barriers to utilizing space data, which is accessibility, we come one step closer to bringing more value to different kinds of industries and communities, helping them solve previously unknown problems and empowering them to create better solutions.
- GRUS-1 Imagery and beyond
With the growing availability and accessibility of different kinds of imagery and datasets acquired using different platforms, the possibility of creating better solutions through data fusion also expands. This involves integrating multiple datasets from multiple sources to develop more robust solutions. The use of data fusion reshapes how diverse groups of users from different industries can utilize different kinds of data to make actionable decisions within their domains.
In August 2021, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) announced a partnership involving the use of Axelspace’s GRUS optical imagery along with other data product types from various sources and aggregate them in Tellus, a government satellite data platform. This initiative is a part of Japan’s Space Industry Vision 2030 and Space Basic Plan with the aim to expand the downstream segment or space utilization industry through satellite imagery.
One of the demonstrations under this program is the use of Axelspace’s optical imagery with Synspective’s radar imagery to develop new solutions. The combination of datasets from both passive and active remote sensors creates possibilities for providing more viable earth observation solutions that can strengthen and complement both optical and radar sensor capabilities in different applications. For example, the strength of radar sensors lies in the detection of structural data, while optical sensors can offer reflectance data.
This is particularly useful in many applications, including precision agriculture. From the classification and mapping of different species of crops to the identification of phenological cycles or stages of crop growth — not only are these possible, but they can also be more accurately done. This can be accomplished by using vegetation indices derived from multispectral imagery, in combination with moisture and roughness values derived from radar imagery. Complementing what each of the imageries can do increases the accuracy and reliability of the solution provided to stakeholders.
As more data-handling tools are developed and more powerful machines become available in the near future, the opportunities for using GRUS-1 imagery, along with other kinds of both geospatial and non-geospatial datasets, are limitless. In turn, this expands the horizon of the geospatial applications that can be created to solve problems in a wide range of industries. The endless possibilities of data fusion and integration encourage more collaboration not just within the earth observation industry but also in terms of cross-domain partnerships.
Jara Villanueva is a remote sensing specialist at Axelspace Corporation. As one of the AxelGlobe engineers, she develops solutions for different kinds of users primarily with GRUS-1 imagery. She was previously involved in the mission planning and development of the Philippines’ first local technology-based microsatellite program. Having worked in a number of industries across different parts of the globe for several years, she is particularly passionate about bridging the gap between space technology and community by creating simple and useable solutions to solve complex problems through geographic information system and remote sensing.
Interview with Massimo Comparini, Deputy CEO and Senior Executive Vice President, Observation, Exploration and Navigation, Thales Alenia Space; CEO, Thales Alenia Space Italia
Q: Could you briefly describe Thales Alenia Space positioning in the current global sustainability landscape?
Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%) and forming with Telespazio a Space Alliance, is a worldwide reference in telecoms, radar and optical Earth observation, defense and security, navigation and science.
Intelligence, maritime surveillance, mapping, crisis management… Space-based systems give users, especially governments, access to a wide range of surveillance and monitoring applications to guarantee their security and sovereignty. A number of countries have indicated a keen interest in acquiring space systems capable of independently supplying them with high-resolution intelligence images. Thales Alenia Space, the only European company offering both optical and radar very-high-resolution instruments, draws on over 30 years of experience to propose a complete range of observation systems designed to meet market expectations.
On a global level, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda on sustainable development confirms the importance of the space technologies, and officially recognizes Earth observation from space as a “useful tool” for protection, management of crisis areas, climatic or environmental emergencies, and natural disasters on the planet. In this context, space technologies are very important to increase the productivity of fields, reduce the use of fertilizers and chemicals, and make the most of available resources, as well as for the management of livestock farms. By observing the planet from space, the European Copernicus programme is – with its Sentinel satellites – the most sophisticated system for Earth observation. It is possible to develop predictive models of crop trends and thus optimize resources, reduce the use of chemicals and, therefore, significantly increase productivity. Our vision is explained in our motto Space for Life: we see space as a new horizon, helping to build a better, more sustainable life on Earth.
Copernicus ©Thales Alenia Space
Q: What is your company’s role in the Copernicus programme?
Thales Alenia Space has always played a role of paramount importance in Copernicus programme. It is now involved in five of the six new missions to extend the system, CHIME (Hyperspectral Imaging mission), CIMR (Passive Microwave Imaging Mission), ROSE L (L-band SAR Mission), and it will be responsible for developing the payloads of two further missions, the CO2M (the CO2 Monitoring Mission) and IRIS altimeter on board the CRISTAL (Polar Ice and Snow Topographic Mission) mission.
This means hundreds of highly-qualified jobs and safeguarded scientific and industrial know-how. The integration of space-based radar and optical sensors is essential to monitor the Earth and its life indicators. Thales Alenia Space now covers a wide range of innovative solutions and contributes substantially to the major industrial challenge of a more sustainable planet enshrined in the extension of the Copernicus projects. We are fully involved in the projects and, thanks to the state-of-the-art of our instruments and the reliability of our space systems Thales Alenia Space will play a key role in making possible the accurate monitoring of climate change and the efficient and safe exploitation of Earth’s resources.
Image taken by COSMO-SkyMed: The container ship Ever Given got stranded in the Suez Canal ©ASI
Q: Could you help us understand the importance of satellites in the meteorology field?
The Company is at the forefront of European geostationary meteorology, as prime contractor for three generations of Meteosat weather satellites on behalf of ESA and EUMETSAT, the European operational satellite agency for monitoring weather, climate and the environment. Meteorologists have been relying on the wealth of data from Meteosat satellites for over 45 years to generate weather forecasts. With the first generation of Meteosat, images were updated every 30 minutes, a rate that dropped to 15 minutes for the second generation. With MTG (Meteosat Third Generation), images will now be updated every ten minutes, making weather forecasts increasingly reliable. MTG data hold promise to revolutionize weather forecasting, and to enable more precise monitoring of our changing atmosphere, land surfaces, and oceans.
As a world leader in altimetry and a major partner onboard the most iconic international missions dedicated to oceanography, Thales Alenia Space is also working on the French-American oceanography satellite SWOT (Surface Water Ocean Topography), which will revolutionize modern oceanography by detecting ocean features with 10 times better resolution than current technologies.
SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite © Thales Alenia Space/Imag[IN]
Q: Synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) is about to revolutionize commercial earth observation, How does Thales Alenia Space contribute to this major evolution?
Indeed. Thales Alenia Space is currently involved in the development of the COSMO Second Generation (CSG) constellation, a SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) observation constellation, made by four satellites of the COSMO-SkyMed (CSK) first generation, operating in orbit since 2007 and 2010 and 2 second generation satellites, launched in 2019 and 2022 respectively.
The second generation represents a major generational leap in terms of technology, performance and operational life. It will provide new application possibilities, in particular for risk management and damage assessment of natural and man-made disasters. CSG Earth observation spacecraft feature state-of-the-art technologies and engineering solutions, further bolstering company’s leadership in this sector. Thales Alenia Space also won two major contracts in South Korea for the development of a radar-based Earth Observation constellation: Korea “425 Project” will include four high-resolution Earth Observation satellites, embarking synthetic aperture radars (SAR) payloads. The new radar-based solution will guarantee short revisit time over the areas of interest, enabling day and night and all weather frequent surveillance.
COSMO-SkyMed inside an anechoic chamber ©Thales Alenia Space
Q: The global health crisis in the past 2 years had a major impact on the importance of information data. What is the contribution of the space industry in this context?
The recent global pandemic has helped people understand how space-borne systems can quickly deliver reliable geospatial information both globally and locally to respond to fast-changing conditions. This data plays a vital role in defining the context of the crisis, monitoring changes and supporting effective measures to contain its impact. Space-based systems have repeatedly demonstrated their fundamental importance in providing information to tackle a variety of natural or man-made disasters by enabling risk management and emergency responses. These systems now play a fundamental role in monitoring our environment, by tracking climate change and other indicators, and by supporting the decision-making process and the implementation of containment measures. The digital twin will help us develop analytical and predictive models, understand changes and meet the sustainability challenge. In other words, space is an essential sector at this particularly critical moment in time. For us in the industry, it’s also an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at our strategic priorities and the public actions needed to make sure we are an integral part of the post-Covid world. “Digital, cyberspace, artificial intelligence, robotics and other key technologies will help us meet the challenge of the “green new deal”. A connected society is just one of a large array of projects that will provide a pragmatic response, meeting short-term objectives while also underpinning a longer-term vision for a sustainable economy.
For more information and inquiries, please contact Olivier Guilbert, Sales Director South-East Asia at Olivier.email@example.com
Massimo Comparini is Deputy CEO, Senior Executive Vice President Observation, Exploration and Navigation at Thales Alenia Space as well as CEO of Thales Alenia Space Italia. He has a long and proven track record in space industry, from technology to services, and in the earth observation domain; in 2016, he was named CEO of eGeos, a joint venture between Telespazio (80%) and the Italian Space Agency (20%). and Director Line of Business Geo Information at Telespazio. He was, at the same time, Chairman of GAF and EarthLab Luxembourg. In 2013, Massimo Comparini was appointed CTO of Telespazio, a joint venture between Leonardo (67%) and Thales (33%). He started his career in 1983 at Selenia Spazio (later Alenia Spazio), holding various management positions, up to his position as Chief Technology Officer. Massimo Comparini holds a Master Degree in Electrical Engineering, Remote Sensing and Radar Systems from the University of Rome La Sapienza, as well as a Degree in Strategy from the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. He is member of the technical-scientific advisory board of the Research, Development and Higher Studies Center in Sardinia – CSR4 – (Italy).