EARTH AND SPACE Looking to the heavens when disaster strikes
Shortly after the tsunami left its trail of death and destruction in south Asia, all the data gathered by satellites orbiting over the affected areas were made available to relief agencies on a single website. This invaluable logistical support is guaranteed by the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters which has been in force since 2000.
The origins of this humanitarian initiative lie in the resolve shown by the European Space Agency (ESA) and France’s Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) at the Unispace III conference in July 1999 in Vienna (AT). The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters subsequently entered into force in June 2000. Four years later, its success has even surpassed the hopes of its initiators.
In an emergency The Charter aims to promote co-operation between space systems during major disasters by offering a flexible framework that facilitates access to the data supplied by a wide variety of observation satellites. In the least possible time, the information gathered from space is used to supplement ground and aerial observations. Countries suffering a natural disaster or major technological accident can dial a confidential telephone number through which they can gain access to the services of the Charter’s partner satellites.
This means that, as soon as there is an earthquake or major accident, the authorised officials in the stricken areas can call the ESRIN (the ESA’s data-processing centre) operator in Frascati, just outside Rome (IT). The operator then contacts the duty engineers at the partner space agencies so that their satellite systems can be immediately deployed in the service of the country hit by the disaster. Observation satellites are then activated, together with telemedicine and satellite navigation services, as well as ground-based data receiving, processing and storage systems.
Out of this earth In the space of four years, the Charter has proved effective on 55 occasions. It triggered responses to 27 cases of atmospheric disasters (floods, tornadoes, etc.), 22 geological disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.) and six technological accidents causing pollution. The need for rapid and constant access to good resolution radar and optical observations – coupled with the assistance of groups of experts – is, therefore, crystal clear.
In addition to the CNES and the ESA, the agencies that are currently members of the Charter are the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Argentinian Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE).
These partners agree to make their best observation satellites available in cases of emergency as soon as they are contacted by the duty operator in Frascati. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently applied to be a party to the Charter. Russia, China and Brazil have also expressed an interest.
The European SPOT, ERS-2 and Envisat satellites, NOAA weather satellites, India’s IRS, the Argentinian SAC-C and the Canadian Radarsat-1 all participate in this pooling of data and there is currently talk of including the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) of micro-satellites that are produced with the technological support of Surrey University (UK). In line with the Charter provisions, increasing consideration is also being given to the possibility of creating, under the aegis of the United Nations, a Disaster Management and Space Coordination Organisation (DMISCO) that would have stable resources and access to space systems for coordinated disaster management.
Due to the complex nature and high cost of observation systems, space-based remote-sensing techniques are subject to a number of constraints that limit their usefulness in large-scale applications:
the large volume of data to be processed on a regular basis for information to be available in a minimum of time
the need for access to software to process the satellite images and interpret their readings
the limit imposed by the authorities, for strategic reasons, on images of too high resolution, as the military want to retain their control over pictures from space showing details of less than 1 metre on the ground
the acquisition and maintenance costs of ground systems for the reception and use of pictures from space
the difficulty of transposing to developing regions – which are in crucial need of them – the advanced technologies used in the industrialised world