3 mins read 06 Mar 2020

Keeping an eye on Bushfire risks from space

ANU InSpace awarding $1 million to team to build next generation CubeSat that helps prevent and manage bushfires by looking down at Earth from space.

A new CubeSat will be designed and developed at the Australian National University (ANU), will keep an eye on bushfire risks from space – predicting where bushfires will start and look for those which would be difficult to contain.

The shoe-boxed sized satellite, set to be Australia’s first of its kind will be designed to measure forest fuel load and vegetation moisture from orbit, with the ability to detect changes in Australian vegetation, such as the highly flammable Eucalyptus tree.

The technology is set to improve the lead times in preparing, management and prevention for fire disasters – leading on from Australia’s recent devastating bushfire season over the 2019-2020 period.

$1 million will be awarded by the ANU Institute for Space (InSpace) to the team to build an optical system that can detect these changes on the ground through infrared detectors on-board the satellite. The ANU team will partner with other researchers and the private sector to complete the project and launch the new satellite into low-Earth orbit.

Remote-sensing expert Dr. Marta Yebra is working with instrument scientist Dr. Rob Sharp to plan the development of the satellite. Dr. Yebra regularly consults with emergency agencies and response teams across Australia on the bushfire risks posed by fuel loads and advised NSW Rural Fire Service during the recent unprecedented bushfire season.

"With this mission, we will receive high-resolution infrared images and data of fuel conditions that will help firefighters on the ground," said Dr. Yebra, an InSpace Mission Specialist from the Fenner School of Environment and Society and the Research School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Environmental Engineering at ANU.

"This infrared technology and data, which is not currently available, will help to target-controlled burns that can reduce the frequency and severity of bushfires, as well as their long-term impacts on Australia's people, economy, and environment.

"I never dreamed I would be designing a space mission to get the specific data on fuel conditions that firefighters need to plan ahead of bushfire seasons."

The satellite is a compact and lightweight system that still delivers ensures the sensitivity and ground resolution or other major detectors and telescopes, Professor Sharp said.

"Our project builds on the University's expertise in infrared-sensor systems," said Professor Sharp, an InSpace Mission Specialist from the Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre within the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The new satellite will be the first in a constellation of Australian satellites that monitor the landscape and environment, Dr. Yebra said.

"The constellation will be designed to have a positive impact on Australia's property management, insurance, geological, agriculture and defence industries," she said.

"We will gradually build up our capacity to monitor these bushfire risks in Australia. At first, we will focus on long-term monitoring. Within the next five years, we plan to be able to monitor changes to our landscape and environment in real-time."