Down To Earth: Insights On Africa From Outer Space

Published 3 months ago
By Forbes Africa | Tiana Cline
outer space, infinite one widths, astronomer photographing milky way
(Photo by Getty Images)

A new era in satellite technology offers space-down insight. Here are some fascinating world views.

Who would have thought that over 50 years later, the space race would be back on? And this time, every country with a space program seems to have their eye on the moon’s south pole.

Between the anticipation around NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission, to the Middle East entering the space race with plans to launch an Emirati-built rover this year, it’s easy to forget that SpaceX’s Starlink is expanding in Africa (most recently, offering high-performance connectivity in the West African country of Benin), with Amazon’s Project Kuiper following suit. While the idea of colonizing the moon, Mars and beyond is exciting, there’s another side to space that is changing how we see the planet we currently live on – data.

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For Clint Crosier, Director of Aerospace and Satellite Solutions for Amazon Web Services (AWS), it’s as simple as making the world a better place, from space.

“There’s space up… understanding the universe… but a mission that’s growing even faster is space down – using space-related data to look at earth and improve the quality of life here,” explains Crosier.

As someone who spent his entire career flying satellites and launching rockets, Crosier has witnessed the rapid growth of the space industry first-hand. (Before moving to AWS, Crosier helped to create the United States’ (US) Space Force, the fifth branch of the US military.)

The data coming out of space is vast but in order to use it effectively, the sector needs next-gen cloud technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced data analytics, quantum computing and more.

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“The space industry doesn’t really understand the cloud but there are many cloud-based technologies to move the mission forward,” says Crosier.

One of the businesses Crosier works closely with is Axiom Space, a private American aerospace company planning to launch the world’s first commercial space station in 2026. There are only two, fully operational space stations: the International Space Station (ISS), operated by NASA and its partner agencies, and China’s Tiangong Space Station. Since 2003, Axiom Space has played an increasingly important role in the ISS program, particularly when it comes to private astronaut missions.

“One of the things that came up is that on the ISS, astronauts are doing medical experiments because, as it turns out, certain medical experiments are more effective when run in microgravity. Stem cell research and biopharmaceutical research get better effects, which is great… but there’s a problem – bandwidth.”

Crosier explains that when an astronaut runs an experiment, it can take up to 18 hours to download the data from space to earth. The data is processed on servers here in about 20 minutes but then needs to be pushed back up to the ISS.

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“It’s complex and because it takes so long, we’re essentially only getting to one experiment a day,” he says. To tackle this problem, Crosier and his team created Snowcone, an edge computing device certified by NASA that Axiom Space took on their first mission, Ax-

1. “The astronauts are using Snowcone to catalogue and run experimental data which saves anywhere between seven to 10 times the amount of science time by processing the data in space rather than pushing it all down to earth,” he says.

There may only be two space stations but there are thousands of satellites orbiting earth collecting important in- space data. AWS partnered with D-Orbit, a satellite company in Italy that takes hyperspectral imagery, to launch a device similar to a Snowcone to process earth observation data in space.

“When you see a picture from space, it’s electro-optical. A satellite can only hold a certain number of images so once the register is full, to take more pictures you have to process and download each. This takes time and costs money and bandwidth and every time that happens, around 20% of the images are unusable because of cloud cover,” says Crosier.

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“It’s a waste of bandwidth to download and process an image only to determine it isn’t useful! So now, we can process that data on orbit on the satellite. This means we’re now throwing images out, increasing the capacity of the satellite and only sending 100% usable images down to earth.”

Processing data in space has decreased bandwidth by 42% with the satellites still meeting 100% of their mission requirements.

“If you can save 42% of your bandwidth budget, you can do so much more with your satellite,” exclaims Crosier.

There are many applications for in-space data (also called space-based earth observation data) that extend far beyond navigation. IBM, for example, are collaborating with NASA to use geospatial information (such as satellite images) alongside AI models to address climate change.

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“Geospatial is about the three Ws – what, when and where. Climate change is a what, when and where use case application. We want to know where the risks are, what risks and when,” explains Hendrik Hamann, IBM Research’s chief scientist for climate and sustainability.

“A lot of the solutions we need come from top down, from observation data. NASA, as a space agency, collects petabytes of satellite data which gives us a unique opportunity to build solutions,” says Hamann. “We can monitor from space where, when and what emissions occur. We can actually track carbon. We can use satellite observations to figure out where carbon is being removed [or] for understanding nature-based carbon sequestration…” Hamann adds that geospatial data is not only powerful, it’s impartial, as it provides the same observation principles. “I think about it as an independent approach. It is really getting us much closer to the truth and it is more scaleable,” says Hamann.

IBM is currently working with the Kenyan government to support the National Tree Growing and Restoration Campaign through a new ‘adopt-a- water-tower’ initiative. The program uses a digital platform that leverages IBM’s geospatial foundation model (developed by NASA) to enable users to track and visualize tree-planting and tree-growing activities in specific water tower areas. With the model, IBM can quantify reforestation, nature-based carbon sequestration and even understand how much biomass is in the trees. “These water towers exist because of vegetation and trees. At the same time, these trees are extremely important for removing carbon. We need to ensure the longevity of these threes so the carbon stays in the vegetation. It also affects water security… and will have a positive impact on sustainable agriculture in Kenya,” adds Hamann.

Where AI models were previously inhibited by a lack of scalability, Hamann explains these new models built with top-down, satellite information are easily replicable. “Although Africa is a gigantic continent, you will be able to rapidly replicate these types of solutions in other parts of Africa. The whole reason we’re building foundation models is because we want to take this to whoever wants it,” he says. Another company using hyperspectral imagery to translate observations into insights is Digital Earth Africa.

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“[They’re] using multi-imagery bands from space to look at the African continent. And then we’re running AI machine learning analytics against that imagery to determine soil content from space,” says Crosier. The data is readily available for government as well as international food and agriculture organizations to address crop production and preposition famine relief forces.

“And we’re doing all of this from space. That’s one of the things that makes space cool – you can see things from space that you just can’t see anywhere else. You could fly a drone or an aircraft up the coast of Africa and get some local coverage but if I really want to zoom out and get an entire picture, I can really only do that from space,” Crosier says. “We are reimagining and re- envisioning space using the cloud.