La Trobe and German Aerospace Agency launch Earth observation camera

October 03, 2018

The partnership has launched a high resolution Earth Observation camera for installation on the International Space Station.

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The DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) was created with assistance from the engineering talent of the La Trobe University Engineering department and the imagery will be used to monitor natural disasters and environmental changes. Thousands witnessed the camera launch from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, attached to Elon Musk’s Space-X Falcon 9 rocket, on 30 June 2018.

La Trobe Engineering Senior Lecturer and Entrepreneur in Residence, Dr Peter Moar, says the collaboration came about because of the La Trobe TIGER (Digital Radar and Radio Systems) radar team’s unique skills and experience designing hardware and software systems for hazardous environments.  “La Trobe University is very much at the forefront of space technology,” Dr Moar said.

“The unique feature of this camera – that no other system can do – is its ability to capture imagery at varying angles as it’s passing overhead, from some 400 kilometres in outer space,” explains Dr Moar. “With sophisticated on-board processing, it enables us to capture features of the Earth’s surface that have never been achieved before.”

“Typically, a system like this would be launched on a stand-alone satellite. This would make designing, launching and building incredibly expensive,” says Dr Moar. Installing the DESIS on the ISS removes the need for an expensive, stand-alone system. “This is the first time this has been trialled – it’s a very exciting project.”

DESIS has been integrated onto the ISS imaging platform named MUSES (Multi-User System for Earch Sensing) and the images will be used by research organisations and commercial users.

These high quality images will be of key benefit for environmental monitoring. La Trobe’s Securing Food, Water and the Environment Research Group plan to use the data to monitor the health of the Earth’s ecosystem, which includes tracking vegetation cover and water quality.

DESIS will also be a boon for disaster management, such as the control and monitoring of bush fires, floods, ash clouds, storms and drought. The School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at La Trobe and Melbourne-based company ESS Weathertech will use the data for the Firebird fire detection satellite project.  The program will provide more timely fire maps to emergency services to help save lives and minimise damage to property.

Dr Moar says that the La Trobe engineers are uniquely qualified to work on DESIS because of their experience developing radar systems for extremely hazardous environments, such as in La Trobe’s TIGER projects.

“Our involvement with the DESIS program highlights the three decades of expertise in La Trobe’s engineering department. It’s a world-first, cutting edge project”, says Dr Moar.

Earth observation is a key priority for the recently established Australian Space Agency, which aims to position Australia as an international leader in specialised space capabilities. The DESIS is currently in its commissioning phase on the ISS.

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