Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) will soon join a suite of 61 international satellites that assist emergency authorities in dealing with floods, storms, earthquakes and other problems threatening humans, according to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
The International Charter for Space and Major Disasters will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020 with the new trio of Canadian satellites, which launched in 2019 to continue the RADARSAT series’ synthetic aperture radar (SAR) observations of Earth.
RCM will continue to fulfill Canada’s role in participating in the collaboration (which is between 17 space agencies) to make satellite data available for disaster management. RADARSAT-1, RADARSAT-2 and RCM were all ideal for flood observations due to their SAR capabilities. The date for RCM’s addition is to be determined, but it should be used on a test basis in the near future, CSA said.
The RADARSAT series data is a crucial aspect of disaster management around the world, as recent CSA data shows nearly 50% of requests under the charter are related to floods. For flood requests in particular that come to CSA, Natural Resources Canada also contributes expertise to assist affected zones.
But determining which satellite will swing over a disaster area first not only depends on its capabilities, but also on what is available first among the satellites used for the charter.
“For the different types of disasters, we have a scenario,” said Christine Giguère, CSA’s manager of SAR data, in a SpaceQ interview. “We tell the mission planners to give a priority for one satellite, and second priority for another satellite. So for every type of disaster, there is an optimal acquisition plan.”
January 2020 alone was a busy month for requests for RADARSAT-2, the Canadian satellite which currently participates in the charter. The 12-year-old satellite performed six sets of observations, ranging from heavy snowfalls in Pakistan, to a volcano eruption in the Philippines, to floods in Madagascar, Brazil, Zambia and Indonesia.
Giguère noted that requests under the charter have been increasing over the years, but it’s unclear if it is because more satellites come online regularly, or if it is due to an acceleration in global warming and climate change driving disasters. For example, there were 25 activations in 2005 and 37 activations in 2017. (The general trend lately has been 30-some activations a year, Giguère added.)
As a founding member of the charter along with the European Space Agency and France’s Centre national d’études spatiales, CSA has seen some changes over the years. A notable addition is the use of private satellites, such as the CubeSats provided by San Francisco-based Planet Labs, as technology improvements allowed smaller cameras and computers to collect more and more data.
Another one is access to data. Instead of being a members-only exclusive club, disaster agencies around the world now can ask for help regardless of membership, Giguère said. “They have the capacity to download maps and pursue an activation request in English. They can ask to be authorized,” she added.
Every year, the member nations of the charter create a report to show how the charter is functioning, and any noteworthy events of the year. You can read the latest report from 2018 here.