[The following guest post is courtesy of Peter J. Brown.]


Advanced Land Observing Satellite. Graphic via JAXA.

One recent entry on the “SpaceAID” satellite tasking page which was posted by the UN Platform for Space–based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) to track the many satellites passing high over Japan following the earthquake and tsunami has attracted very little attention thus far.

However, the UN-SPIDER’s knowledge portal confirms that China quickly deployed a pair of smaller earth observation satellites — China’s Huan Jing (HJ)-1-A and B – as part of the broader multinational response to this disaster, and that China’s National Committee for Disaster Reduction (NCDR), and the National Disaster Reduction Center of China (NDRCC) wasted no time in doing so.

At least one of these Chinese satellites acquired imagery of the east coast of the Japanese main island of Honshu approximately two days after Japan had activated the International Charter ‘Space and Major Disasters‘ on March 11.

The Japanese government certainly welcomed the arrival of a massive flotilla of government and private sector satellites from China, Taiwan, the U.S., and Europe. The fact that Japan’s small fleet of surveillance satellites is recovering from the loss of a Japanese radar satellite last summer only reinforces the important role that the Charter – now entering its second decade – is playing in this instance.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also has its Advanced Land Observation Satellite (ALOS) which is also called “DAICHI” with its vital sensor payload on board. This 4000 kg satellite carries the Panchromatic Remote-sensing Instrument for Stereo Mapping (PRISM), the Advanced Visible and Near Infrared Radiometer type 2 (ANVIR-2) and the Phased Array Synthetic Aperture Radar (PALSAR) which ensures that data collection can continue night and day and in all weather conditions.

Thus, Japanese government officials and disaster response personnel can use data from this satellite and the other satellites to accurately scan the large debris fields sitting atop Japanese coastal villages, while performing an assessment of the status and condition of all infrastructure in the region along with all surviving structures and vegetation.

ALOS / DAICHI is described albeit briefly here in order to remind readers of the obvious “dual use” dimension of all the satellites that perform such post-disaster surveillance. It is the same satellite, by the way, which provided China with data in the aftermath of China’s most recent huge earthquake which killed thousands of people in southwestern China.

As China and Japan as well as India and the ASEAN nations attempt to craft an effective and robust system of systems that can tie their satellite assets together as part of a robust disaster response solution in space, each and every sign of progress is significant.

And yet at the same time, the steady growth of the various government-owned satellite fleets in Asia has enormous regional security implications. Thus, any instances where satellite-based cooperation occurs are not to be dismissed or taken lightly. Some of this work falls under the auspices of the “Sentinel-Asia” initiative. Along with UN-SPIDER, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, and the Asian Institute of Technology – to name just two regional organizations – play an important role here, too.

Satellite imagery, however, must be seen as one component in the evolution of an elaborate database. By using satellites together with fixed-wing aircraft and soon a GlobalHawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), Japan will soon be able to paint a complete picture of the devastation on the ground.

With the destruction of most if not all of the communications infrastructure in Iwate Prefecture, satellite operations have been impaired significantly. And an attempt by this writer, for example, in the early days of the recovery and relief operation to assess Japan’s ability to quickly deploy suitable numbers of satellite-equipped mobile command posts proved futile.

On March 17, JAXA announced that its personnel had started to install movable ground antennas, teleconference systems, radio LANs and other equipment so that JAXA’s Wideband Internetworking (WINDS) Engineering Test and Demonstration Satellite known as “KIZUNA” could help to restore communications throughout Iwate Prefecture. In addition, several trucks packed with communications gear accompanied the U.S. 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force which was scheduled to arrive at Yamagata Airport this week.

All of this activity suggests that the Japanese disaster recovery planners may have underestimated the need for, and the importance of, mobile command posts equipped with satellite downlinks and terrestrial wireless repeater systems. Have adequate numbers of these vehicles along with qualified operators finally reached the affected zone? Of course, the scale of the devastation and the spread of nuclear radiation are impeding the flow of all emergency personnel and equipment.

Finally, besides attempts to rebuild communications infrastructure, there in another key concern which deserves attention in this instance. Rapid satellite mapping is seen as an absolute necessity during any large-scale disaster response campaign. And here is how German expert describes what is unfolding in Japan.

“Some people seem to coordinate among each other, some not. Satellite tasking seems to be good and coherent. Analysis is going OK – with a certain coherence, however, there is still a need for developing rules of engagement and best practices in satellite – based emergency mapping for extreme events like the one we are witnessing (in Japan),”said Dr. Stefan Voigt
of Germany’s Center for Satellite based Crisis Information (ZKI) which is part of the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Last month, Dr. Voigt gave a technical presentation in Vienna at the 48th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – under the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UN-OOSA) – entitled, “Enhancing Global Cooperation in satellite based Emergency Mapping (PDF file)”

In his presentation, Dr. Voigt reminded everyone about the lack of common rules of engagement, and the absence of any guidelines on how to operate and cooperate. The situation was not made any easier, he said, by the absence of any qualifying and certifying of capacities – “all is best effort” – and the absence of a “best practices” handbook. Common quality assurance and validation is also missing.

As far as creating a global coordination scheme supported by a common training and exercising of procedures and collaboration, Dr, Voigt urged the global satellite mapping community to study and learn from the experience of the global search – and – rescue (SAR) community which has tackled the same sort of problems. As a result, the so-called INSARAGUNDAC guidelines emerged, among other things, and there is now a shared operational framework, and a uniform SAR team certification process.

Avoiding a duplication of what Dr. Voight described as the “mapping disaster” that unfolded in Haiti recently should be a top priority.

In contrast to prior disasters where only a limited number of actors were involved in rapid satellite mapping activities, the number of organizations and mapping service providers mushroomed suddenly in Haiti – “providing satellite mapping and analysis in a poorly coordinated way” – so that hundreds of maps ended up on UNOCHA/ReliefWeb. Dr. Voigt counted approximately 380 new maps generated by more than 30 different producers and sources in one month alone.

This sudden overflow of mapping information resulted in, “partially inconsistent, at least largely diverging, mapping and satellite imagery analysis” as well as a “completely different representation of damage classes, map features etc.”

This unwelcome situation brought about, “confusion, frustration and resignation of the ‘user’ community with respect to satellite maps/analysis” as these users were often presented with contradictory information derived from so many different types of maps including reference maps, damage assessment maps, situation maps, overview maps and further specialized maps which all used different scales as well, ranging from 1:5.000- 1:500.000,

Perhaps this will be one of the items discussed at the next UN-SPIDER training workshop which will be getting underway in New Delhi later this month. According to Shirish Ravan who heads the UN-SPIDER office in Beijing, the recent events in Japan have changed the agenda for this upcoming session in India.

“Yes, the agenda now contains a panel discussion on role of space-based information during the recent disaster in Japan. (This panel will convene on the final afternoon.) In addition, we are covering topics related to the Pakistan floods, cyclones in Bangladesh, and the drought in Afghanistan etc,” said Ravan.

Certainly, Asia does not expect China and Japan to synchronize all their space activities, but any small steps involving these two countries and others that point to a greater degree of cooperation and coordination in the context of disaster response and recovery are certainly noteworthy.

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Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who specializes in satellite technology. He wrote extensively about the role of satellites in major disasters as a former senior multimedia and homeland security editor at “Via Satellite” magazine. His work on this topic has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He has worked on a variety of projects where improvements in emergency communications have been an important goal including the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which has been widely implemented throughout the U.S.
Peter J Brown has 6 post(s) on Japan Security Watch