3 mins read 13 Dec 2021

The Need for an Australian Bushfire Prevention Satellite

The Australian National University has proposed a CubeSat mission called OzFuel to monitor Australia for areas at high risk from bushfires. 

A rendering of the OzFuel mission satellite. Credit: Skykraft.

With the end of the school year and the holidays rapidly approaching comes bushfire season in Australia. Some years it’s manageable, but sometimes it can be devastating - such as the scale experienced in the 2019 - 2020 Eastern Australia Bushfires. And as climate change worsens, so will the frequency and impact on life, property and environment from these events. 

Australia relies on a variety of methods to track bushfires and high-risk areas, including the use of Earth monitoring satellite data. However, currently, we rely on foreign satellites to collect and relay this data, which introduces a data supply risk to the nation. Thankfully, our strategic political partners have stepped in to help out for emergencies, but as has been recognised by all levels of government and industry, this could change quickly leaving Australia in the dark.  

To improve Australia’s bushfire tracking and readiness measures, the Australian National University (ANU) proposes a CubeSat purpose-built to monitor Australia and identify areas at high risk to bushfires. The need for this type of satellite is recognised in the newly released roadmap from the Australian Space Agency regarding the future and expansion of Australia’s space industry.  

While there are already satellites that can be used to some degree to help monitor Australia’s bushfire potential, none of these takes into account Australia’s unique landscape and flora, like the highly flammable Eucalypts. ANU is looking to develop and demonstrate that a purpose-built CubeSat, dubbed OzFuel, can identify areas that are at risk from bushfires.  

An example of currently available satellite imagery for monitoring bushfires. Credit: NASA.

As the name OzFuel suggests, ANU is looking particularly at a satellite that can identify swathes of dry fuel which are the perfect place for a potentially catastrophic bushfire to ignite and take hold. Information about fuel conditions are gathered using a variety of methods, including ground sampling, observations by plane or drone, or satellite imagery. Currently, however, these methods only examine very small areas and are slow, time-consuming, or inaccurate. 

OzFuel would gather this information at a much faster rate and more accurately with a satellite specifically designed for the Australian landscape. This mission would measure fuel loads across Australia by targeting the specific radio wavelengths related to dry matter, water content, and other compounds of eucalypts that make them flammable. 

The CubeSat would monitor eucalyptus forests every six to eight days in the early afternoon - a time when vegetation most easily ignites - taking images at a roughly 50-metre resolution. This data could then be used before bushfires start to identify high-risk areas where prescribed burning needs to occur to reduce the fuel present. It can also be used during a bushfire to help authorities plan where to allocate resources to battle the blaze.

A CubeSat such as OzFuel could help prevent bushfires and the conditions that encourage them, such as those of Black Summer 2019-2020. And with worsening climate change, Australia needs to be ready to develop and utilise this type of technology now and into the future to prevent a repeat of these catastrophic events.  

Read more about the OzFuel Project