Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

A new 'pair of eyes' in space

By James Morgan
Science reporter, BBC News

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The satellites orbit in parallel sweeps, to image large swathes of the Earth

They are the "eyes in the sky" that spy on Afghan poppy growers and mapped the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, two new satellites are to be added to the five-strong DMC constellation, and made freely available for research.

Deimos-1 and UK-DMC2 will supply imagery to support global environment monitoring projects when they launch later this year.

The current DMC quintet has captured the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami and the deforestation of the Amazon.

THE SEVEN DMC SATELLITES
AlSat-1 (Algeria, 2002)
NigeriaSat-1 (Nigeria, 2003)
UK-DMC (UK, 2003)
Beijing-1 (China, 2005)
BilSat-1 (Turkey, 2006)
Deimos-1 (Spain, 2009)
UK-DMC2 (UK, 2009)
The Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) is a collaboration between governments of six member nations - Algeria, China, Nigeria, Spain, Turkey, and the UK.

Their satellites co-operate to provide emergency Earth imaging under the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters.

They are designed to react rapidly to a natural disaster - as they did by capturing the first satellite images of the destruction caused by the tsunami.

High five

The five existing satellites have also followed the spread of forest fires in Indonesia and the retreat of ice caps in Greenland.

Their spare time is spent measuring soil quality for farmers and monitoring forests for NGOs.

With a new pair of "eyes" set to enter orbit this year, the operators of the DMC are inviting scientists to submit their ideas for Earth observation projects.

Ten winners will be able to request free data from the new satellites.

New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina - one of many remarkable DMC images.


"We feel this is a unique and valuable contribution to the science community," said Dave Hodgson, managing director of DMC International Imaging Ltd (DMCii), which operates the satellites.

"We look forward to supporting some deserving scientific research that will contribute to our knowledge of the Earth and our impact on its resources."

Tag team

The DMC satellites work in partnership to picture large areas - up to 360,000 square kilometres - in a very short space of time.

Nowhere is the need to improve our knowledge more pressing than in the monitoring of climate change
Dave Hodgson,

DMC International Imaging Ltd

They orbit in sequence, taking turns to scan the next strip of land or sea.

Crucially, their orbits enable them to make a daily revisit to any given target site. Such frequent visits allow them to monitor subtle changes in the landscape, and make the most of cloud-free moments.

Each spacecraft is equipped with multi-spectral sensors, which are tailored to detect changes in vegetation - a valuable tool for a range of Earth observation projects.

In Afghanistan, the satellites keep an eye on poppy crops - helping the UK government to anticipate the opium trade.

Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, the satellites monitor the poppy crops (shown in red)

But they also monitor the wheat crops, allowing the Afghan government to anticipate potential food shortages.

In Botswana, the DMC has tracked the encroachment of farmers' fields onto elephant grazing lands. This helps to predict the likelihood of dangerous conflicts between elephants and humans.

In Brazil, the satellites take regular pictures of the Amazon basin, enabling the government to monitor deforestation.

And in Alberta, Canada, they are helping farmers to boost crop yields by carrying out remote sensing of soil nutrient levels. The measurements help determine the type and volume of fertiliser required for different soil types.

Space race

The two new satellites, Deimos-1 and UK-DMC2, will offer far higher resolution images (22m) than the current DMC quintet (32m).

They were designed and built by the UK's Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL).

The 10 winning bids for free use of the satellites will be split evenly between researchers from Spain, home of Deimos-1, and the UK, home of UK-DMC2.

ELEPHANT-HUMAN CONFLICTS
Elephant. Image: Christy Williams, WWF

Entries will be judged on the value of their contribution to international environmental research, by a panel chaired by Professor Alan O'Neil, from the UK National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).

"Nowhere is the need to improve our knowledge more pressing than in the monitoring of climate change," said Mr Hodgson.

"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that 17.3% of CO2 emissions in 2004 were the result of changing land cover, predominantly deforestation.

"Satellite imaging is helping to measure the rate and location of deforestation and contributing to scientific models that will improve our understanding of climate change."

Indonesia, forest fires
In Borneo, Indonesia, the satellite constellation monitors tropical forest fires



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