Copernicus ready to rain down petabytes of Earth observation data. Can Europe handle the deluge?

The April 25 launch of the Sentinel-1B radar Earth observation satellite was cheered as proof that Europe’s multi billion-euro Copernicus environment-monitoring program was in full swing.

The next day, European government and industry officials met to consider nightmare scenarios.

Here’s one, recounted by Andreas Veispak, head of the space data and societal change unit at the European Commission’s DG-GROW:

“When I hear stakeholders say: ‘It actually takes 80 percent of our time to find the data and get it into a form where we can use it, leaving only 20 percent of the time to develop something with added value,’ then there is work to do.”

The commission, which is the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, and the 22-nation European Space Agency are like oil producers who’ve spent years drilling and now have struck pay dirt: how to handle the gusher?

Petabyte upon petabyte is on the way from the Sentinel satellites and other sources of atmospheric, oceanic, coastal and land data. Harnessing it will not be easy.

Europe’s Sentinel-1B satellite lowered onto Fregat upper stage ahead of its April 25 launch aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket.. Credit: ESA

Europe’s Sentinel-1B satellite lowered onto Fregat upper stage ahead of its April 25 launch aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket.. Credit: ESA

Sentinel-1B joins the twin Sentinel-1A, in orbit for two years. They will operate for at least seven years before being replaced by another, nearly identical pair — and so on, forever after, or at least further than budget planners can see.

Under European policy, all this data is free. It might be logical to think that radar data, no easy read, would not generate immediate enthusiasm. But that’s not the case.

Volker Liebig, head of Earth observation at ESA, said that since Sentinel-1A was launched in April 2014, ground teams have cataloged 482,000 data products. The data has been downloaded 4 million times during those two years — a 4.71-petabyte deluge. That’s nearly 5 million gigabytes.

Now imagine that with two Sentinel-1 radar satellites operating. Add the pairs of Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3 satellites, with different sensors. Sentinels-4 and 5 launch aboard satellites operated by Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization in low-Earth and geostationary orbit, respectively. Then there’s Sentinel-6, and so-called third-party missions whose satellites will regularly contribute to Copernicus. Plus drones, aircraft, in-situ sources…

Big Data to the rescue? Inevitably. But as recounted at the Copernicus Value Chain Workshop held April 26-27 in Brussels, where Veispak made his remarks, Big Data is confused about Copernicus.

Who are the users? What do they want? Is it the private sector’s job to figure this out, or the European Commission’s? Where data treatment standards are needed, who creates them?

Dirk Hamelinck, head of strategy at the Big Data Value Association of 135 companies, wants the commission to back so-called Lighthouse programs to attract companies to develop a common platform and organize the value chain.

It was said at the conference that Copernicus was born as a way to save the world but has evolved into a way to promote jobs and economic growth in Europe.

But that means maximizing the role of the private sector and minimizing the role of the various government agencies that control Copernicus.

“I have heard that only 20 percent of the marine data from Copernicus that’s downloaded is downloaded by businesses,” said Stephane Ourevitch of SpaceTec Partners. “There are so many things business could offer — applications about the presence of jellyfish, surf conditions, water quality, sailing — so many things.”

The issue of where Copernicus government activity stops and the private sector begins promises to be difficult to resolve.

Geoff Sawyer, president of the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies, told the conference that there is no single authority to determine the frontier between government and private-sector responsibility. There are seven.

“I wish there were one, but we’ve got seven,” Sawyer said. “But I hope we can get help to solve this problem. Where do Copernicus services stop and the [private-sector] downstream sector start? In some cases, the downstream sector starts before the services stop.”

Sawyer said the U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Policy of 2003 draws the lines clearly enough: If the private sector can do it, government should not except in rare cases.

On handling the data flood, Sawyer said European users might be tempted to turn to Google or Amazon Web Services.

“And why not?” Sawyer said. “There is no European solution yet, and companies don’t really care about geography. They care about the sustainability of their business. But we don’t want to become dependent on one supplier, or even two. We need redundancy in the system.”

Veispak appeared to understand the industry’s concerns. He said the commission would focus on stimulating the market where it needs it. “It’s not 100-percent clear that these markets are ready-made and easy to be discovered,” he said.

The European Commission’s space strategy policy paper, expected by the end of this year, should help clarify things. To private-sector concerns that the commission will overstep its bounds, he said the commission worries that industry will not step up to take responsibility. The PPP the commission has in mind, he said, means Public-Private Partnership, “not the Public Pays Permanently.”

“When I hear stakeholders say:
‘It actually takes 80 percent of our time to find the data and get it into a form where we can use it, leaving only 20 percent of the time to develop something with added value,’ then there is work to do.”

 

— Andreas Veispak