SEOSAT-Ingenio’s lost promise for Earth observation

Spain’s satellite, the SEOSAT-Ingenio, was billed as the latest in high resolution land imaging technology. Originally, we presented what it would have done. But its launch vehicle, a Vega rocket called VV17, failed.

Arianespace, a French launch service provider, and the European Space Agency (ESA) say they will set up an independent enquiry after a Vega rocket, VV17, failed after lifting off from its launch site at Kourou in French Guiana during the night of November 16 to 17.

The rocket was carrying two satellites: Spain’s SEOSATO-Ingenio for ESA and TARANIS for the French space agency, CNES.

ESA says the first three stages “functioned nominally [sic]” until about eight minutes after departure from the launch pad. “At that time, a degraded trajectory was detected, followed by a loss of control of the vehicle and the subsequent loss of the mission.”

Initial investigations suggest there was a problem with the fourth-stage of the rocket. The launcher fell in a completely uninhabited area, according to an ESA press release.

Tough year already

It’s been a tough year for space, as it has been for us all on Earth. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed engineering developments and pushed back launch dates. But it hasn’t stopped some of the biggest and most ambitious missions to date — notably, three international missions to Mars.

There have been countless, smaller satellite launches as well.

And Spain’s high-resolution land imaging mission called SEOSAT-Ingenio (Spanish Earth Observation Satellite — Ingenuity) was to be a highlight for European science and technology.

Prior to its scheduled launch on November 17, DW presented what SEOSAT-Ingenio would do in an article originally published on November 13. That article follows:

The last phases of a mission of this size are “very intense,” says Alex Popescu, SEOSAT project manager. It’s all about the final stages of what’s known as “integration and test” before the launch. Usually, teams work together, all in the same location, but the pandemic has changed that.

“The pandemic has blocked all the usual procedures, so we had to quickly put in place new ways for remote access and remote working. And it’s been difficult, but impressive to see how well it has worked,” Popescu says.      

Two small teams were at Kourou in French Guiana, Europe’s main launch location, when DW spoke to Popescu, who was there as well. But everyone else, from the launch support team to those working on the satellite’s early phases in orbit, they were dotted around Europe.

Spain in high-resolution

The “jewel” of SEOSAT is its dual camera, says Popescu.

The SEOSAT-Ingenio spacecraft is enclose in its fairing, ready for launch

It will deliver optical images of Earth in black and white — otherwise known as the panchromatic band — at a high-resolution of 2.5 meters (8 feet).

And color images in four multispectral bands — red, blue, green, and near-infrared — at a resolution of 10 meters.

SEOSAT’s focus is very much Spain, but it will also observe North Africa and South America.

Its high-resolution images will be “ideal,” says Popescu, for applications in urban development, cartography and environmental monitoring of water and land use, woodland cover, agriculture and tackling climate change and natural disasters, such as wildfires and floods — and the data will be open to both public and commercial use.

“Space missions offer a global view,” says Popsecu, “you are not confined to a local area, and everything is linked. So, first, by looking at North Africa and South America, which has historical and economic ties to Spain, it will benefit co-operations between countries. But, also, by monitoring neighborhoods closer and further away, you can better understand how changes in one area can affect changes at home or in other areas. And that will be of big value.” 

Tricks up SEOSAT’s sleeve

Panchromatic images are useful for mapping and monitoring urban land usage. They let you see building activity, like structures and new roads, and for that a higher resolution helps.

Color images, meanwhile, are useful for monitoring vegetation, its health or degradation, water quality, and minerals and other resources. And because it’s felt that such details seldom change very quickly, “you do not need submeter accuracy,” says Popescu.

By superimposing the higher resolution, black and white images, onto the color images, “you gain in spatial resolution,” says Popescu. “You get additional detail from the panchromatic images into the color.” 

SEOSAT can also look sideways and capture images of every corner of the world every three days.

“The satellite will remain in a fixed orbit, but it can roll to the left or right like a swimmer in the water,” says Popescu, “and if you roll 45 degrees at an altitude of 670 kilometers [416 miles], you will see an area stretching 670 km.”

That could be useful for avoiding areas covered by clouds, for instance, or during emergencies when satellite programs collaborate to deliver as many images, as frequently as possible, from the affected area. So, it wouldn’t matter whether SEOSAT was directly over the emergency zone if what it delivers gets stitched together with other images to provide a bigger picture of Earth.

Source: DW News