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What's on Your Radar?

Sentinel-1 is a new SAR mission with a new data model you should know about


2014 is a big year for Earth observation satellite launches. It’d be hard to pick a favorite from the many missions, but perhaps the most unusual one is due to fly this Thursday. Sentinel-1 is an imaging Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mission. Though SAR offers a lot to the earth science community, as well as commercial and defense users, there are relatively few sensors compared to the choices for optical imagery.

It’s not too surprising. SAR is more difficult to work with, from a user’s perspective, than optical imagery. Optical sensors can rely on the sun for their illumination source, but SAR sensors have to provide their own. This means SAR sensors are heavier and consume much more power, making them more difficult to launch, shortening the spacecraft’s life, and increasing the difficulty of the aerospace engineering part of the mission. These factors drive up costs, making SAR data harder to find and more expensive than traditional imagery.

That is, until now. The European Space Agency (ESA) has an ambitious environmental monitoring earth science program, Copernicus,which will eventually include 6 major earth observing satellites. Day and night, over land, ice, and ocean, Sentinel-1 will be providing high-quality SAR imagery data. The real top feature, however, is that ESA will be making the data freely available to all.

This has never been done before. We’ve had successful C-band SAR missions before (ERS-1, ERS-2, ENVISAT, and Radarsat). And we’ve had wildly successful open earth imaging data missions (Landsat, among others). But there hasn’t ever been free-to-all SAR data. The explosion of research and discoveries when the Landsat archives were made available has shown us that open access to earth science data is a clearly superior model. I can hardly wait to see what progress and discoveries are made when Sentinel data come online!

Sentinel-1 will launch Thursday. If you haven’t pre-registered for data access, do it for free here. Another highly anticipated SAR mission, PALSAR-2 / ALOS-2, will launch May 24th. I plan on using the data to extend some of my natural hazards mapping and research. What’s on your radar? How will you be making this new level of SAR data work for you?