Studying the Earth from space

UCalgary researchers are studying ways to make the most of the space that surrounds our planet.

By Mark Lowey
August 2017


Observing extreme environmental events

Environmental changes on Earth – shrinking glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels and a changing water cycle – could result in more extreme weather events, severe coastal inundation, massive wildfires, floods and droughts, and even depleted water resources. Fortunately, such changes leave a ‘signature’ on the Earth’s gravity field, which is now measurable by ESA’s and NASA’s specialized Earth-observing satellites, and thus they can be detected from space.

“The knowledge gained from satellite gravity and hydrology models will strengthen forecasting and possibly the prediction of hazardous events, such as floods, droughts and heat waves, and changes in natural resources such as land water in North America,” says Michael Sideris, professor of geomatics engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering and president of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics.

“Society can be prepared for, and mitigate the impacts such hazards have on human activities and infrastructure, only if the causes and time evolution in the Earth’s system are fully understood.”  

Sideris and eight colleagues on campus are establishing the Integrated Canadian Observing Network for Earth and Space Research (ICON-ESR). The Canada-wide interdisciplinary initiative will study the complex systems that govern and affect changes in weather (including space weather), climate, water cycle, resources, natural and induced hazards, and the tectonics that affect the Earth’s crust.

“This research will tackle pressing issues,” says Sideris, “such as natural and induced hazards monitoring and mitigation, mineral and energy resource characterization, global warming effects in the Arctic, fresh water shortage in the Prairies, and sea level rise at the coasts.”

Forecasting forest fires with satellites

Quazi Hassan is using remote sensing data captured by satellites to investigate the potential for forecasting the wildfire risk at a specific location 24 hours to eight days out. The research has very real implications for predicting and protecting against wildfires, such as the inferno that devastated Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, in May 2016.

“We are using Earth observation, a non-destructive technology, to try to understand how things happen,” says Hassan, a professor of geomatics engineering. “Once we know how things happen, then we could be in a better position to manage the event.”

In his Earth Observation for Environment Laboratory, Hassan and his research team have developed “data-fusion” techniques for combining  data from Canada’s Landsat and NASA’s MODIS satellites to produce high-resolution images over long periods of time. His projects include monitoring drought and water-stress conditions for crops and predicting and mitigating impacts of large-scale flooding.

Hassan is also using satellite remote sensing to study localized impacts of climate change. He has produced a map of Alberta, at a spatial resolution of one kilometre, that details average temperature increases over the last 60 years. He’s working on a similar map for the city of Calgary and outlying area.

Enhancing global navigation and communications

Satellites can help us do everything from guide autonomous vehicles, pinpoint our locations to within 10 centimetres and even work with tiny sensors in our shoes to tell us how fast we’re running.  There are more than 1,100 satellites in space, and counting.

“There are ever-tightening slots, where every satellite is given a particular orbit and has to maintain a distance from the other satellites,” says Erin Kahr, a PhD student in geomatics who is working on methods to precisely align two or more satellites flying in formation. “My research project is essentially, can you use multiple constellations of satellites as your tool to measure where everything is, keep track of it, line it up and determine its accuracy?”

The research will be useful in employing GPS relative positioning to locate the growing number of communication satellites parked in crowded geostationary orbits above Earth’s equator.

Better radio transmitters for communicating in space

Space and wireless communications are only possible with state-of-the-art radio transmitters and receivers. “We want to have a universal system where we can communicate – for voice, internet, spacecraft guidance, any type of communication – anytime, anywhere,” says Fadhel Ghannouchi, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCalgary’s Schulich School of Engineering. 

He’s designing “software defined radio” for space that’s energy efficient, hardened against radiation and can communicate via different radio frequencies, protocols and standards.  Working with the Canadian Space Agency, Ghannouchi and his team are developing a highly integrated and power-efficient type of radio transmitter for Canada’s RADARSAT Earth observation satellites, planned for deployment in 2025, and for a potential mission to Mars.

Ghannouchi is also working on environmentally friendly radio components that are smaller, last longer and consume much less power.  Information and communication technologies (ICT) consume at least five per cent of the world’s energy, usage that’s growing at 10 to 15 per cent each year.  “We are tackling this urgent problem to minimize the impact of ICT on global warming and climate change effects,” he says.

He and his colleagues’ 1996 invention – adopted worldwide – was “digital pre-distortion,” a technique that reduces power consumption of wireless radios while enhancing quality of radio signals. They have since extended this patented technology to more advanced radio and communication systems. “Our work has led to useful devices and applications that enhance people’s quality of life.”

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About our experts

Michael Sideris is a professor and Associate Head (Graduate Studies) in the Department of Geomatics Engineering in UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering. His research interests are in the areas of gravity field approximation, spatial and temporal geoid modeling, dedicated gravity satellite missions, satellite altimetry, airborne gravimetry and gravity gradiometry, height systems and vertical datums, optimization, and geodetic applications of statistical, spectral, and wavelet methods. View Michael's publications
Quazi Hassan is a professor in the Department of Geomatics Engineering in UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering and leads the Earth Observation for Environmental Laboratory. Quazi and his research team are working on finding ways to use technology to help mitigate natural disasters caused by fire, drought and flooding. View Quazi's publications
Erin Kahr is a pursuing a doctorate in Geomatics Engineering (GNSS orbit determination) at the University of Calgary. Her research studies how accurately Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) can measure satellites’ positions if their orbits range outside of the typical service areas.
Fadhel Ghannouchi is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering, and is developing innovative technological solutions for broadband and green software-defined radio systems. View Fadhel's publications

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