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SA space agency to use super hi-res satellite tech for nation planning

South Africa’s National Space Agency (Sansa) has launched the latest update to its high definition satellite imaging capability, by licensing the capabilities of the latest orbiting cameras through the SPOT 6 (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) program.

Through SPOT 6, Sansa will be able to order new imagery on demand and make it available to government departments to help with national planning objectives and keeping track of agricultural and environmental issues.

During the launch of Sansa’s 2015 SPOT 6 mosaic in Pretoria Dr Sandile Malinga, CEO of Sansa, explained that the use of the SPOT satellite imagery has far-reaching benefits for South Africa.

This is the 10th year that Sansa has released the SPOT mosaic – the complete view of South Africa from space – at an annual gathering to discuss the use of the SPOT satellite imagery among government organisations.

“SPOT is important to Sansa and the nation as a whole. What do we do with it? Well, the number of applications are actually unlimited, but we use it for monitoring food security, energy security through weather forecasting, national mineral management, and urban planning,” Malinga said.

He added that SPOT is crucial in the decision-making process and a valuable support tools, as it provides crucial geospatial information. The cost of making use of SPOT runs into the millions of Rands each year, but Malinga (while not divulging the cost) said that it is worth the investment.

In previous years, Sansa has made use of the SPOT 5 satellite, but for 2015 and going forward, the organisation is making use of SPOT 6 and SPOT 7.

SPOT 6 was launched in September 2012 and SPOT 7 was launched in 2014, and the Sansa team activated the licence for use in March this year. Going from SPOT 5 to 6/7, Sansa can update its imagery of South Africa with better quality images.
This should give you a good idea of what imagery from SPOT 6 looks like.

This should give you a good idea of what imagery from SPOT 6 looks like.

And by using both satellites in tandem, the organisation has seasonal coverage of South Africa is its sight as it has already covered 88% of the nation.

Sansa’s Earth Observation Managing Director Dr Jane Olwoch, said that by moving from SPOT 5 to SPOT 6/7 has huge benefits for the country.

“We have shown that Sansa can host large datasets, and I would like to commend the progress that has already been made. Moving from 5 to 6/7, it is an innovation that promises the country better and timely information.”

Globally, the SPOT satellites have taken 11.3 billion images of earth, and 24% of those are clear shots with literally not a cloud in the sky. South Africa’s national coverage from SPOT started in 2006, and to date that data has been distributed to over 50 organs of the state.

SPOT 6 and 7 are two satellites which follow the same orbital path, but are 180 degrees apart from each other. By working together their highly responsive sensors can capture data in multiple wavelengths to reveal more than just photographic detail.

“We will have the ability to accommodate urgent tasking requests, which are great for disaster management applications and we will also get four weather forecasts per day, which is integrated automatically into the tasking process to optimise efficiency.”

This is significant, as 60% of the imagery taken from any location in the country will have less than 10% cloud cover.
For another good example of its uses, here you can clearly see the migration of wildebeest in Kenya [Image – GeoEye-1]

For another good example of its uses, here you can clearly see the migration of wildebeest in Kenya [Image – GeoEye-1]

Previously, government organisations had to notify Sansa well in advance if it wanted satellite imagery, but with 6/7 that window has been reduced to a couple of days.

Making use of satellites to look at objects and places on earth can conjure up thoughts of secret agents tracking an elusive criminal by identifying the brand of soft drink he consumed.

Well, that would be theoretically be possible with possibly different technology, but since SPOT 6/7 have the capacity to produce images with a 1.5 meter resolution in natural colour, it is better suited to food at large areas of land rather than small details. It would be possible to see the migration of vegetation, but its definitely not capable of checking motor vehicle licence numbers.

But taking daily images of South Africa generates a huge amount of data, and that has to be stored somewhere.

From June this year, Sansa will slowly start to move the data to a better format, as DVDs, hard drives and compact disc aren’t as effective any more.

The organisation will be making the move to a .ftp site that will make use of Sansa credentials so that anybody can log in and view images.

“We need to develop an online platform as a long term solution, like making use of a web mapping service for disseminating all the Sansa products and service,” Kekana explained.

As mentioned, with Sansa having a licence to pull imagery of South Africa from the SPOT satellites are a huge benefit to the nation. It helps with urban planning, checking agricultural movements and can even keep track of illegal miners.

All in all, it is very important for South Africa to be able to keep track of a variety of aspects that are of national importance, and SPOT 6/7 allows it do just that for the various government organisation and department.

But how is this different to using Google Earth? Well, Google gets most of its imagery from DigitalGlobe and it isn’t always up to date. You might have noticed chunks of different coloured patches in Google Earth, and that is caused when images from different time periods are stitched (or meshed) together to form a cohesive image. And for legal and security reasons, all images on Google Earth have to be older than six month. So in short, it isn’t very accurate when you want to track something sensitive, important or immediately.

And in case you were wondering: no, SPOT6/7 or Sansa doesn’t have any high resolution images of Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. We did ask.