5 mins read 08 Jul 2021

NovaSAR-1 Data now available to Australian researchers and industry

Australian researchers will now have access to the Earth Observation data collected through the NovaSAR-1 satellite, with the aim of helping manage agriculture and disaster management risks.

There are more than 1000 images available via the data hub. This snapshot from Google Earth shows the coverage across Australia and beyond. (Supplied).

The Australian agricultural and natural disaster management industries (amongst others) will from today be able to access data captured by CSIRO’s NovaSAR-1 satellite – commemorating the first time that Australian institutions will be able to source their own Earth Observation (EO) information from space.

Australia has a share in data taken by the NovaSAR-1 satellite, managed through our national science agency, CSIRO – and applications are now open to researchers and institutions to apply for time on the satellite.

The NovaSAR-1 satellite utilises Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology to image Earth – providing the ability to see through thick clouds and smoke, giving an advantageous view of events that are occurring on the surface across the nation.

Whilst most satellites that are launched these days have powerfully high-resolution imaging capabilities, SAR is a remote sensing method in which data is collected through radar techniques – a signal is released from space onto the surface, and the reflection is observed and collected as data.

In the last few years, and in particular, with the emerging risks associated with climate change (such as bushfires and floods), it has become imperative to authorities, and across the Australian space community, that sovereign Earth Observation capability is in the nation’s best interest.

Fires burning in New South Wales, near Shark Creek, during the 2019-2020 bushfires – captured from space. Credit: Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data/Gallo Images/Getty Images.

An example of this was highlighted during the tragic and remarkably devastating 2019 – 2022 Australian bushfire season when as close to real-time imaging was required to continually assess threat levels and fire progression.

Fortunately for Australia, the Japanese Government re-configured the Himawari-8 weather satellite to image the region at 10-minute intervals. Even in this show of goodwill and international cooperation, the lag time was unavoidable as imaging from the Himawari-8 required transmission and transition through Japan’s meteorological agency before it could be passed to Australia.

Additional satellite support (though, less in real-time for the region) was also provided by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites through established European channels of cooperation. In all cases, it demonstrated that Australia needs to be able to stand on its own feet with sovereign EO capability, in preparation (reactively) for any future natural disasters, or proactively, for land, agriculture and resource management.

“CSIRO has a strong track record of hosting world-class national research infrastructure on behalf of the nation, including radio telescopes, a marine research vessel, a high-containment facility for researching infectious diseases, supercomputers, biological collections and digital capability,” said Dr Dave Williams, CSIRO’s Executive Director Digital, National Facilities and Collections.

“Although Australia is one of the largest users of Earth observation data until now we have not had direct control over the tasking of an Earth observation satellite, so the opening of our NovaSAR-1 facility represents a step-change for Australian research and an important step forward for our space industry.”

The data collected by the NovaSAR-1 satellite will be transmitted back to Earth and downloaded at Australia’s first and only Aboriginal-owned-and-operated ground station near Alice Springs, by the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT), which has been operating since July 2020.

Peter Renehan, CfAT CEO, said access to NovaSAR-1 has the potential to benefit many Indigenous communities, like Indigenous rangers who look after land and sea and can use imagery from space to help do their jobs.

“It’s important that we can build and own facilities like this right here in central Australia and feel proud that Aboriginal Australians are making such an important contribution to supporting the development of Australia’s sovereign capability in the space industry,” Mr Renehan said.

Dr Amy Parker, CSIRO Satellite Operations and Data Manager, said synthetic aperture radar imagery like that from NovaSAR-1 has not been widely used in Australia before.

“So far, we’ve used the satellite to capture over 1,000 images, all of which are now available to users. NovaSAR-1 is an exciting addition to the country’s Earth observation resources while also helping us to build our capabilities in satellite operations,” Dr Parker said.

The NovaSAR-1 Satellite

Australian researchers can apply to direct Australia’s share in Earth observation satellite NovaSAR-1. Computer-generated image of the satellite in orbit. Credit: SSTL.

Developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in the UK, the NovaSAR-1 satellite was successfully launched and placed in orbit in September 2018. An agreement established through the CSIRO, to the value of $10.45 million over a seven-year period, allows the CSIRO to observe any type of imagery and data required over the Australia and Southeast Asia region, as well as utilising data collected from anywhere around the world.

CSIRO now shares the satellite time as a national research facility, providing Australian researchers with the opportunity to delve into their own SAR-related EO projects, surveying the continent and surrounding regions.

Additional to the CSIRO, NovaSAR-1 is funded by the UK Government, and partners with the UK Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) the Republic of the Philippines Department of Science and Technology-Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI) and private company, Space-Eyes.LLC.

Synthetic Aperture Radar image of Sydney Harbour at 6m resolution, acquired by NovaSAR-1 2018. Credit: SSTL.