Brazilian deforestation and melting polar ice caps are feeding a boom in demand in the $2.1-billion market for satellite data, images and services used to monitor the planet
More images means more satellites and that need has spurred the development of the European Space Agency's Vega rocket, which is scheduled to lift off from Kourou, French Guiana, today to release nine satellites into orbit on its maiden flight.
"We're adding this smaller brother to our launchers as there is more and more demand for Earth observation," Franco Bonacina, a spokesman for the Paris-based ESA, said in an interview. "There is an increased need to keep an eye on the environment."
Data sales and value-added services from Earth-observation satellites may more than double to $4.5 billion in the decade ending 2020, according to Northern Sky Research. Part of the growth may come from tracking deforestation, which the UN says makes up 17 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate envoys have made reducing forestry emissions a crucial component of the global talks.
Vega was designed to place small satellites made for science and planet observation. Today's main payload is the Italian space agency ASI's LARES laser relativity satellite, which is designed to measure the Lense-Thirring effect, part of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. The next satellite launch, set for the end of the year or beginning of 2013, will be the Proba-V - where V stands for vegetation - to monitor tree coverage and forests, Bonacina said.
"The planet needs a checkup and satellites are the best instrument to pursue it," said Axel Oddone, head of multimission data access at e-GEOS. "Environmental monitoring has grown very strongly in the past few years, and I expect this trend to accelerate. Durban has contributed to an awakening on environmental issues among governments."
Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, uses satellites to detail how deforestation is driven and is open to helping other developing countries do likewise, Brazilian lead climate negotiator Ambassador Andre Correa do Lago said in an interview in Durban. "Satellite monitoring is key to the conservation of forests," he said.
By combining hundreds of images from satellite coverage with software analysis, experts can analyze patterns of deforestation down to a single tree and calculate the emissions resulting from removing trees that would otherwise sequester carbon dioxide.
Satellites also serve to step up surveillance of illegal logging, said Mark Brender, executive director of the GeoEye Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by GeoEye Inc.
"Satellites are like a silent watchman in space looking down on Earth," Brender said, citing a project to unveil rosewood trafficking and illegally sourced timber in Madagascar.
As well as monitoring deforestation, a cause of global warming, satellites are used to observe its effects. In the Arctic, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center uses orbiting instruments to track the declining sea ice. Satellites can also track glaciers, coastal erosion and ocean currents.