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Space rules the world April 6, 2010

Posted by Bahadir Sahin in English, Haber (News).
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Transport, banking, food production, social networking, global supply chains, the world economy – would all grind to a halt if the satellite system failed. It’s a fragile system, but also the best place from which to see how fragile the earth is. Australia lags behind. Reporter, Ian Townsend.

Ian Townsend: In the past few years, the world has made another giant leap into space.

Like never before, the world’s economy has embraced satellites, especially the incredibly useful GPS navigation satellites.

Satellite receivers are being put into mines, trucks, trains, ships, phones, containers of bananas, stock exchanges; almost everything is now being tethered by digital signals to space.

Satellites are fast becoming part of everything we do, from farming to banking, and dating to driving.

Ian Townsend: In New South Wales, for instance, the Roads and Traffic Authority is testing a safety device, said to be the biggest thing since seatbelts.

It’s called ‘intelligent speed adaptation’, and it’s getting drivers to stick to the speed limit and slow down in school zones.

[Voice: School zone active…]

Ian Townsend: A technologist with the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority, John Wall, says a revolution in road safety is around the corner.

John Wall: We can use GPS to make what is unpredictable today on the road, predictable tomorrow. I guess one of the applications would be dedicated short range communications. This is where cars are actually talking to each other and telling each other where they are on the network. So if you’ve got a vehicle for example, travelling along a road 90-degrees to you and you’re coming up to a rural intersection, this system would actually tell you that there’s a car about to enter that intersection way before you could see it and way before any of the new technologies like radar and things that are mounted on some of the high-end vehicles could detect that car. If it detected that that vehicle wasn’t going to stop, it would then warn you that that vehicle’s likely to collide with you and in the future I can imagine automatic systems actually taking over, then braking you, if you didn’t react to that advice quick enough.

Ian Townsend: Most countries have planted their feet firmly on the accelerator of their satellite industries.

Satellites the size of fridges, and some bigger than cars, are as high as 36,000 kilometres over our heads, humming with data and watching and measuring everything on the earth’s surface.

They’re helping seal business deals, exchange currencies and withdraw cash. The Global Positioning Systems, the GPS navigation satellites, have become so useful that the world now relies on their signals.

In Canberra, the chairman of the Australian Space Industry Chamber of Commerce is Brett Biddington.

Brett Biddington: The more important question is what would the world do without it? And basically the world as we know it, rich countries, poor countries, transport systems, banking systems, food production systems, global supply chains, you name it, would all grind rapidly to a halt if we didn’t have access to those signals.

Ian Townsend: Hello, I’m Ian Townsend and welcome to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National, and also broadcast around Australia and around the world via satellite.

Back in the 1960s, Australia was at the forefront of satellite research. In 1967 it became the fourth nation, after the Soviet Union, the US and France, to launch a satellite from its own territory. A rocket donated by the Americans carried a research satellite into orbit from Woomera, in South Australia.

But since then, things have gone downhill for Australia’s space industry. Today, it has hardly any satellites to speak of.

At Flinders University in Adelaide, space archaeologist and historian, Alice Gorman.

Alice Gorman: In this, I think there is a certain element of cultural cringe, and that may be too simple and glib an explanation. But I suspect there is some of that in there. If you think of all of the expertise concentrated in Australia at a certain point in the development of space exploration and space services, it’s almost like at some point we just lost our confidence and thought, ‘Well, we can’t really compete with the big players here, so we’re not even going to try’.

Ian Townsend: There was disappointment in the 1970s when the British, after launching one of their own satellites from Woomera, pulled out of what was called the Anglo-Australian Joint Project.

Alice Gorman: A lot of the equipment was just destroyed, or sold for scrap, or used for target practice in military operations. So there was no concerted effort to preserve the expertise that was present in people, or the technology of the infrastructure. So we kind of let a lot of that disperse and we could have kept it in the country.

Ian Townsend: That’s a shame, because when we were dismantling the Woomera satellite base, other countries started investing heavily in satellites.

The result is that for years now, Australia’s been begging, borrowing and buying access to foreign satellites. Our weather data comes from an old Japanese satellite, and Geoscience Australia was recently forced to buy images from an Indian satellite after an American Landsat satellite broke down.

The director of the Institute for Telecommunications Research at the University of South Australia, Alex Grant.

Alex Grant: We have some collaborations and we do things with other international partners, but we haven’t really held up our end as what you might expect of a developed nation in terms of getting things into space. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean launching rockets out of Australia and having astronauts and a big space program, and contribut8ing to the international space station or things like. There are things that are achievable and has been achieved by countries with kind of a similar population and GDP as Australia.

Ian Townsend: Canada, for instance, has a dozen satellites and a space industry that earns billions a year. More than 40 countries have nearly 1,000 working satellites between them.

Australia on the other hand, has four satellites, owned by Optus, but you could argue about who really owns them. Optus is 100 percent owned by SingTel, which in turn is mainly owned by the Singapore government.

Lately, the Australian government has been taking small steps towards building its own satellite.

It’s spent $8.6 million to come up with a National Space Policy this year, and is handing out $40 million in grants for space projects.

But that’s peanuts if it’s trying to establish a local satellite industry.

A former bureaucrat, now running his own satellite imaging company, is John Douglas. He says if we’re heading down that path, we should be buying satellites overseas, off the shelf.

John Douglas: When I go and buy a car, which characteristically is Japanese or German, or something like that, do I want to build that? Do I want to buy all the bits and pieces and make it? Does it have to be made in Australia? Well, we’ve tried that many times. It doesn’t seem we’re very good at that, and certainly not competitive. We don’t make jet fighters either, or rocket ships. The money is not in building satellites, it’s in owning the satellites and the value-adding product line. So you might buy it for $25 million to $50 million or a constellation for a couple of hundred million, and then make billions globally over the life of those satellites, through the value-adding product.

Ian Townsend: Space has become a big global business and it’s revolutionising other industries down at ground level, particularly agriculture.

About two hours drive north of Adelaide in the Clare Valley is Taylor’s Winery. It produces six million bottles of wine a year.

Ian Townsend: It’s harvest time, and that means satellite-guided machines bristling with sensors.

It’s early morning, and the winery’s viticulturalist, Colin Hinze, is showing me the harvest of cabernet sauvignon grapes.

Colin Hinze: The grape harvester works basically by rattling the berries off the bunch. There’s a set of beating rods inside the head of the harvester which run at somewhere between 400 and 500 beats per minute. The harvester’s travelling at somewhere in the order of three to three-and-a-half kilometres an hour. There’s the fans that remove the leaves from the sample, so pretty much all we’re getting through is grapes.

Ian Townsend: At this time of the year, the harvesters are working around the clock. Aerial images have shown Colin Hinze where the grapes are ripe. Guided by satellites, the harvesters move in.

Colin Hinze: What we’re looking at is the conveyor belt and halfway along the discharge conveyor, there’s effectively a set of scales under there. It’s a metal frame. The tray of the conveyor’s been cut out; we’ve put a metal frame in there instead. There’s four load cells which measure the weight of the grapes as they go across the belt. On the end of the belt’s a belt speed sensor, so it’s measuring the speed of the belt. Speed and mass gives you the flow.

Ian Townsend: Where does that information go?

Colin Hinze: Right on top of the cabin we’ve got the GPS receiver, and both of those signals go into the cabin where the driver is, and it’s just a simple logger. It shows him the accumulated tonnes as he’s picking it, so he’s got an idea of how much grapes he’s put in the bin each time, and how much fruit’s being delivered to the winery. It’s logging the position and the yield as it’s being harvested.

Ian Townsend: That’s a lot of information to digest. And it’s not really clear what good it all is until you get back to the office.

A massive database is being built that can show, for instance, which vines on which soils in the vineyard produce the best grapes. Aerial images taken before the harvest show the vineyard in a matrix of reds, oranges, blues and greens, showing areas where the grapes are ripe, or where more water or fertiliser’s needed.

Colin Hinze: The image that we’re looking at is actually showing us just the vineyard rows, and in this particular case it makes it complicated, because half-way along the row it appears to be lower in vigour and then it changes to be higher in vigour. So what we might see is that the crop load is less where there’s the lower vigour. Those grapes will typically ripen earlier. The berries will be smaller and they may well have a different flavour composition in the grapes as well. So one problem is they might ripen early, the second problem is they might taste different and actually be targeted to a different wine style.

Ian Townsend: All this information is helping winemakers find the best place for a new vineyard. Imagine being able to draw up a wish-list of soil qualities and climate, match it to a grape variety, and then let satellites and a computer program find the best spot for that really good wine.

Colin Hinze: We’ve taken that information, we’ve gathered extra information about soil properties, the topography, so using a RTK GPS, a highly accurate within one to two centimetre accuracy GPS to collect the accurate terrain information to try and distil down what are the key attributes that might lead to new vineyard establishment. So where is an appropriate place to have a vineyard boundary, so that within the block it’s as uniform as possible. And certainly we’ve done that on a patch that’s 40 hectares and we won’t really know the result of that for five, ten years down the track when we’ve established a vineyard and really got it underway. But we’ve done the first step, which is to use those precision viticulture and precision agriculture tools to look at new vineyard design.

Ian Townsend: In this part of South Australia at the end of a hot summer, brown fields give way to dry and dusty country towns.

In a little town called Lobethal, in the Adelaide Hills, is a company called Apogee. It buys the satellite images, analyses them, and then sells that information to, say, a farmer or a government department.

The owner is John Douglas. Inside this small office on the outskirts of the town, the staff is busy. On computer screens are satellite images of Queensland, where it’s flooding.

The Queensland government has been phoning, and John Douglas has been ‘tasking’ European satellites over Southern Queensland to take a look.

John Douglas: These are radar ones, so they see through clouds, work at night. These are German satellites and European satellites. Those satellite data, when they’re collected, will then produce here flood maps, so these are basically flood maps from space. So this is essentially giving information to the people like around Charleville and Mitchell etc, what’s happening in a broad extent, as I said, through the clouds and at night. So that’s completely different from flying aeroplanes around.

Ian Townsend: There are three main types of satellites. There are the GPS satellites; the communication satellites for television, radio and phones; and the remote imaging satellites with their cameras.

John Douglas buys these images from the foreign companies that own the satellites.

What he gets isn’t just pretty pictures. The cameras can take photos in ultraviolet, infrared or radar. These images are manipulated in computers to show all sorts of things, from vigorously crops are growing, to how high floodwaters are. The satellites can see through clouds and take photos at night.

John Douglas is showing me a satellite image of the West Atlas oil spill off the north-west coast last year. The spill shows up as reds, oranges, blues and greens.

John Douglas: We’re using here West Atlas rig. Here’s where the West Atlas rig was, we’re using the satellites on a number of occasions and different satellites to map the oil spill and then down here we’ve actually colourised that by analysing the thickness and density of the oil spill. So wherever it’s thickest or densest you put your activities, not down in the green.

Ian Townsend: The things you can tell from satellite images are amazing, and it’s a technology still in its infancy.

But already, you can buy computer programs that will measure the fire danger in your backyard. Satellites can tell how dry the bush is around your house, how much fuel there is, and the height and slope of surrounding hills. With weather forecasts, it could help you decide whether to stay and fight a fire, or flee, and even suggest the safest road out.

Satellite images of crops can now be downloaded directly into a tractor’s computer, to tell it where the insects are bad, and where the crop needs more water or fertiliser. That can reduce the use of chemicals and save farmers money.

The satellites seem now to be able to measure how much carbon is locked up in a piece of land. John Douglas.

John Douglas: That’s going to be important in the future, and that’s going to be done by satellites, but by radar satellites because we found that you can measure the biomass and we’ve just recently done some studies. One of our guys found we can measure the biomass of wheat crops, tonnes per hectare. Now that’s not been done before, for lots of reasons, not the least of which there weren’t a lot of satellites that could do it, and so that’s a completely new area of that.

Ian Townsend: You can see the potential for carbon trading. The company’s now part of a consortium to see if it can map the carbon in Australian forests.

But all this data comes from other countries’ satellites, and that can be inconvenient and expensive. The big money being made from space at the moment is in owning satellites and selling on the data.

John Douglas: A number of years ago I visited Brandenburg and met with three people in a room that had a smaller company than I do here. Their vision was to have a series of satellites called RapidEye. Those satellites would be the world’s first small constellation of five satellites for agribusiness. So, four years later, they’re in orbit, their company is flourishing. How the hell did they do that? And this is a company, a start-up company, smaller than mine.

Ian Townsend: What happened was that with the help of the German government, that small company bought the satellites itself.

John Douglas: Now the end product is, in less time than it’s taken us to do any of the reports we have about space, and probably the next one, they’ve come up with five satellites.

Ian Townsend: In exchange, the German government was given some space on those satellites, to do the things governments need satellites for, things like search and rescue, weather forecasting, mapping, climate research, even traffic control. The list is getting longer.

It’s a far cry from the Cold War on the 1950s, when the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellites.

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