The gargantuan task of decoding space-based data | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.05.2015
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The gargantuan task of decoding space-based data

From satellite geeks to Germany's most prominent astronaut, hundreds of experts gathered this week in Bonn to talk about satellites and how they're used to help the world with its problems. DW was there.

The overarching message Alexander Gerst has attempted to convey to audiences for months now, ever since returning from Earth's orbit this past November, is one of perspective.

"If you ask the universe, we don't really mean anything at all," Gerst, perhaps Germany's most prominent astronaut, explained to hundreds of eager listeners at a conference on the use of space-based data this week in Bonn.

But he wouldn't stop there: "But that doesn't mean we are meaningless, that our actions are of no consequence."

Speaking with Gerst outside the room where he gave his speech (one of dozens since his Earth landing six months ago), he would elaborate: "Any human being will be changed by the view of their home from the outside. Before you fly to space, usually your sense of home is the small region where you come from. We Germans call this Heimat - it's pretty much where you grew up. And when I flew to space, this changed in a way that made me no longer think about myself from a small place somewhere down there on that Earth; the whole planet suddenly felt like home to me. And this transformed my feeling on Earth, from 'Me and Them' to a feeling of 'Us.' We only have this one place!"

ISS Italien aus dem Weltraum gesehen

From up above, Gerst said his eyes were opened to his own world

Eyes of the world

Gerst functioned as a kind of symbol at the opening of the conference, which was focused on the task of enhancing the use of satellite data for sustainable development and disaster risk reduction around the globe.

"The information provided by satellites is more than just colored pictures," said Juan Carlos Villagran de Leon, who heads the Bonn office of the UN-SPIDER program (Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response), in an interview with DW. "If you are able to process the data that satellites provide, this can be of extremely important use to national, regional and local authorities."

Like in Nepal, for instance, explained Johann-Dietrich Wörner, head of the German Aerospace Center, which contributes to UN-SPIDER from its Earth Observation Center. "We were lucky enough to have taken substantial aerial photography of Kathmandu and its surroundings 12 months ago, with an excellent resolution of 10 cm. Using these pictures and our satellite imagery of Kathmandu after the earthquake with a resolution of 50 cm, we were able to see the exact extent of the damage, which has helped with rescue efforts and will also contribute to a better understanding of risks for the future in this region and others."

Satellite imagery and the Pyramids

Earthquakes are just the beginning when it comes to ways the UN and its partner satellite operators would like to help governments around the globe deal with disasters. Villagran de Leon singled out forest fire rescue and prevention as a particular instance in which satellites have been helpful.

"It's very easy to measure the number of hectares burned with a satellite," he said. "If a person has to walk this area - the burnt area - that would be dangerous and would take days or weeks. Even with airplanes, it takes much more time to make aerial photography useful compared with imagery from satellites."

Ukraine Waldbrand nahe Tschernobyl

UN-SPIDER says it has made real contributions to forest fire prevention and rescue efforts

Though Villagran de Leon was clearly happy with the progress that's been made with the SPIDER program since its inception in 2006, he admitted that steps had to be taken to improve the efficacy with which information is converted from unpacked data to useable information on the ground.

"The information that comes to us from space is a string of zeros and ones," said Kenneth Holmlund, of the European agency for the exploitation of meteorological satellites, (EUMETSAT). "The process of turning raw data into usable data should be the primary concern right now. Regardless of how powerful the satellites are, nobody can do anything with electromagnetic measurements unless they are first contextualized, and optimizing this process of data calibration is what we are working on at the moment."

But Holmlund - who incidentally compares the work done with satellites to mapping climate change to massive world projects like the building of the Pyramids in ancient Egypt - also said he found the increased desire for on-demand data far-fetched and short-sighted.

"Everyone these days wants information right now. If we focus too much on the now, we will drive the scientists working on these satellites into the ground as it were," Holmlund said. "What we really need to be thinking about is what we will need in 30 years time, because that's how long it takes to make these satellites."