4 mins read 06 Sep 2021

Monitoring Australia's Water Resources from Space

CSIRO and SmartSat CRC are collaborating to establish AquaWatch Australia - a national water monitoring system comprising an extensive network of ground sensors and Australian-built satellites.

Satellite image of an algae bloom in Lake Burrinjuck, taken on February 10, 2021. By closely monitoring water resources, the AquaWatch Australia programme aims to predict these types of events so they can be prevented. Image credit: Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

By 2026, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO along with SmartSat CRC - a government-funded consortium of Australian universities and research organisations committed to growing Australia’s space industry - have progressed their work across the AquaWatch Australia programme designed to provide comprehensive monitoring of Australian freshwater resources and coastal regions. 

A new analysis, conducted by UNSW Canberra has determined that a space-based Earth Observation (EO) system, will be an important piece of Australia’s ongoing natural resource management, and space heritage.

The scoping study, conducted by the Australian National Concurrent Design Facility at UNSW Canberra found that by utilising remote sensing data captured by satellites, in combination with ground-based observations, a larger degree of water resource risks could be managed from a national level. The report will also be used to inform the upcoming Australian Space Agency’s Earth Observation from Space Technology roadmap. 

“We were able to identify a system design that addresses those requirements and is feasible to construct, commission and operate,” said ANCDF Manager and Space Systems Engineer, Denis Naughton, “The consolidated technical solution for the operational AquaWatch satellites would require further detailed engineering analyses of the mission.”

This certainly seems like a grand endeavour. Why go about it?

According to SmartSat CRC, as it currently stands, only 60-70% of Australia’s water resources are able to be monitored by existing satellites, and data from existing ground-based testing is not consistently corroborated with the data from these satellites. In short, there is a gap in the efficacy of Australia’s water monitoring network. This gap means that there may be water degradation occurring in difficult to reach places not covered by existing satellite systems, which could have harsh impacts on both communities and ecosystems alike.

“The outcomes could lead to a step-change in Australia’s national water quality information delivery, supporting decision-makers in water agencies, local communities, water utilities and commercial water users to provide safe drinking water, regulate contamination events, and monitor water quality across primary industry and assist with management of aquaculture farms, reef structures and our coastal environs,” said SmartSat CRC’s Chief Executive Officer, Prof. Andy Koronios.

AquaWatch Australia seeks to fill this gap by building upon the existing network of field monitoring sensors to create a ground-based sensor network throughout Australia. These sensors would work in tandem with brand-new satellites designed specifically to observe and monitor our waterways from orbit in real-time as well as provide an early warning system so water managers can prevent problems such as contamination from industrial waste, or algae blooms before they become a major threat.

“It will add additional modelling and simulation tools that will allow us to monitor water events, and allow them to visualise what will happen two or three days from now.” said CSRIO's Dr Alexander Held,  Director of Centre For Earth Observation and AquaWatch Lead, “And that’s really important when dealing with toxic blue-green algae so you can warn people down-river.”

However, the goals of the AquaWatch project extend further than improving water quality across Australia. AquaWatch aims to foster the growth of a local Australian space manufacturing industry. Inevitably, there are hopes to have access to a vast array of satellite and satellite data that are used primarily for Australian interests, rather than relying on using international resources and waiting for the data to get to Australia.

“This has a dual role.” Dr Held said, “The social benefit...and to eventually use this as a springboard to grow an industry that can build lots more of these satellites for different applications.”

The AquaWatch Australia program is currently in its in-situ ground-based system design and implementation trials, with the satellite expected to be launched into orbit from 2026. Findings from the scoping study can be found here.