An introduction to Space Applications

Let’s have a look at an introduction to Space Applications. This new article on Space Legal Issues introduces the applications of space technology as the backbone of modern digital life. It aims at comprehending the benefits of space applications from a user perspective, focusing on the creation of value in the space information value chain and examine space applications with a primary focus on Earth‐orbiting satellite systems and other complementary technologies.

The three areas of focus are: satellite remote sensing, satellite navigation and positioning, and satellite communications. Humankind benefits directly from products and services provided by these different application areas either as a standalone or integrated for keeping in touch, find our way, stay safe, and monitor the Earth for changes that could help or harm the environment and society. The historical background, basic principles of operation, practical benefits, current developments, and future outlook shall also be explored.

The applications and use of space technology can be seen from our day-to-day lives. The use of space technology can support several other technologies and services to make them operate more efficiently and in a timely manner. Everyone needs to make informed daily decisions and space applications areas from satellite communications to Earth observation and satellite navigations are at the heart of all of these decision-making chains and networks.

While satellite navigation determines a precise position anytime, anywhere on the globe, Earth observation provides information about the Earth’s surface, its atmosphere, and marine systems. The joint use of both applications unleashes an array of synergies that will have a substantial impact on the future of how we use space technologies.

Earth Observation

Earth observation (or Remote sensing), in an introduction to Space Applications, was one of the first examples of space applications, but in terms of user market size and maturity, it is still significantly lagging behind satellite communications and satellite navigation. The size and maturity of the latter two is caused mainly by consumer (commercial) and military market segments, whereas the use of remote sensing, with the exception of meteorology, was, until recently, mainly driven by scientific users, humanitarian services, and government services to the public.

In remote sensing, the source of the information that the user needs is the Earth itself, but the carrier signal is generated in the satellite. The satellite basically acts as an “eye-in-the-sky”, carrying sensors (usually in the optical or microwave spectral domain) detecting (geo)physical properties (whether natural or anthropogenic) of the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and outer layers.

These signals are transmitted to the Earth and used as input to models and algorithms (often very sophisticated and scientific) from which information products and services are derived. There is a steady increase in both the number of available remote sensing satellites (and thus the amount of data) and the knowledge needed to derive useful geospatial information from remote sensing data.

Compared to other data sources, the distinctive features of satellite remote sensing data (regular repeated observations, worldwide access without geographical or political limitations, long time series, relatively cheap data, a multitude of spectral parameters) make it undoubtedly an ideal future information source for users in the field of Earth monitoring for climate, environment, security, safety, health, and welfare. Topics such as food security, agriculture, air quality, water management, natural disasters, and societal development are already among the leading examples of applications of remote sensing.

Satellite communications

Satellite communications, in an introduction to Space Applications, are the largest area of space applications. Although technological innovations continue to improve both the space and ground segments of these techniques, growth potential in terms of users and applications is less than that of satellite remote sensing. In satellite communication, the satellite (basically consisting of a receiver-transmitter of radio signals) acts merely as a link in an information chain, a reflector of signals. Both the carrier signal and the information are generated on Earth (television or telecommunication), uploaded to the satellite and broadcast from the satellite back to the Earth, where it is received by the user.

At an early stage, this relatively simple concept already has proven to be commercially (and militarily) very successful. As a result, the commercial satellite communications market is economically mature and currently still the largest in the space sector.

Satellite navigation

Satellite navigation allows users to determine their location everywhere on Earth at any time with high accuracy. In combination with software solutions for navigation in digital maps, many applications have become possible in the areas of transport, logistics, tourism, smart cities, safety, and military and civil security. In satellite navigation, both the information that is needed by the user and the carrier signal are generated in the satellite.

A Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), consisting of tens of satellites, each of which transmits such signals to the Earth, encompasses the whole Earth, making worldwide positioning possible when the user has a receiver available. Such receivers range from highly accurate ones for scientific or security use to simple ones in smartphones. The commercial market for satellite navigation is also economically mature and it is second in size only to the satellite communication market.

Integrated applications

Integrated applications, when information from both satellite and terrestrial sensors networks are combined, can to user problems and challenges. In many cases, satellite data and signals are combined (integrated) with data provide more value and support more efficient decision-making processes for business. Information derived from space applications may contribute enormously to these complex decision-making process and provide solutions and signals from other sources, such as ground sensor networks, data archives, and airborne data.

From the space perspective, this applies equally to remote sensing, navigation, and communication. More than any single technique, the integration of space applications (with each other and with other sources) offers unique opportunities for commercial, societal, and scientific use. A case at hand might be the impact of natural or man-made disasters, where geospatial information, recorded in near-real-time by remote sensing satellites, is instantly shared using satellite communication and delivered at the right places using satellite navigation.

Another example of societal benefits from integrated applications would be in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Out of many areas where we are already seeing the benefits of combining the GNSS and EO data, there are two that provide already evident societal benefits: precision farming and the contribution of space technologies to the development of smart cities.

Additionally, in all modes of transport, more precise positioning means more efficient and direct routes, which are key to reducing greenhouse emissions. From providing the maps needed to find the best locations for renewable energy infrastructure to outlining the most fuel-efficient flight paths, optimising road transportation routes, and infrastructure monitoring, applications using both GNSS and EO provide the answer to many societal challenges. This is what can be said in an introduction to Space Applications.