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ESA Earth observation event supports quality of New Space data

14 Dec 2023

In the context of a rapidly growing New Space economy, ESA’s traditional position as an Earth Observation (EO) data provider is interchanged with new additional roles, such as customer, partner or enabler, as set out at the VH-RODA (Very High-resolution Radar & Optical Data Assessment) workshop.

At the recent VH-RODA workshop - which took place at ESA’s centre for Earth observation (ESRIN), in Frascati (Italy), from 27–30 November - ESA facilitated open discussion between commercial New Space vendors, scientific communities and the institutional space sector, to ensure the quality of very high resolution (VHR) data entering the global arena.

Participants at VH-RODA 2023
Participants at VH-RODA 2023

At the workshop’s opening, Henri Laur, ESA’s head of the EO Mission Management & Product Quality Division, said: “ESA’s traditional Earth observation activity includes our Earth Explorer research satellites, the many Sentinel missions of the EU Copernicus programme and meteorological missions operated by EUMETSAT. We have another growing layer of activity – support of commercial Earth observation missions, where ESA has various commercialisation roles.

Welcome to VH-RODA
Welcome to VH-RODA

“As a customer, we procure commercial data for scientific and operational use. We also partner with New Space EO data providers, and co-fund development of commercial missions and application development, through EO InCubed. ESA are also more present in an enabler role, supporting commercial EO data quality assessment.”

The VH-RODA workshop fulfils an important function, according to Laur, in providing an open forum where commercial providers of VHR data can gain the support of institutional space, in the domain of data quality and Calibration and Validation (Cal/Val).

VH-RODA 2023 was the 4th edition of the workshop, and had a strong attendance, with representatives from more than 30 countries. Presentations, poster sessions and splinter discussions were held on topics, such as calibration techniques, calibration reference sites, fiducial reference measurements, big data, analysis-ready data, product validation and quality control and Cal/Val for constellations and new missions.

For 45 years, ESA’s Earthnet programme has provided the framework to access EO data from non-ESA missions, via ESA’s Third Party mission (TPM) programme.

ESA’s TPM Manager, Peggy Fischer, at the VH-RODA workshop
ESA’s TPM Manager, Peggy Fischer, at the VH-RODA workshop

At VH-RODA, Peggy Fischer, ESA’s TPM mission manager, provided updates on how the programme supports European New Space by facilitating free access to commercial data for research and application development purposes.

Fischer showcased a selection of cutting-edge research use cases – or TPM success stories – and highlighted impressive statistics about the programme: in the past 15 years alone, more than 14,300 research projects used TPM data, with over 2,300 newly registered TPM users in the previous 12 months.

“By combining TPM data with data from ESA missions, we can exploit the synergy between all sources of data to meet the needs of user communities from different sectors for a growing range of applications. We are steadily increasing our portfolio with different types of missions for different domains, and there are currently over 60 instruments providing TPM data from more than 50 missions,” said Fischer.

The most recent addition to the TPM portfolio is the Spire LEMUR constellation, which passed the Earthnet Data Assessment Project (EDAP+) assessment process in November to become a TPM. Assessment of the quality and suitability of candidate non-ESA EO missions under consideration for ESA’s TPM programme is continually ongoing, via EDAP+. There are many missions currently under assessment, such as the space-based radio frequency BRO missions and the S-band NovaSAR mission.

VH-RODA was also attended by a group of emerging commercial satellite data providers that were recently added to the Copernicus roster – the emerging Copernicus Contributing Missions (CCMs), which are coordinated by ESA on behalf of the European Commission. Representatives of these New Space start-ups stayed on at ESRIN to take part in ESA’s first emerging CCM Cal/Val checkpoint, which took place directly after VH-RODA, to develop a roadmap for future data quality activities.

As data from new commercial sources and institutional satellites are used by a variety of worldwide users, it is essential to have good understanding of the data’s characteristics, how they are calibrated and their quality and technical capabilities. To accommodate new domains entering the arena, this year the workshop also hosted new designated sessions on infrared, hyperspectral and atmospheric composition missions, and related Cal/Val topics.

Clément Albinet, ESA coordinator of VH-RODA says: “Every month we see new missions with new capabilities entering this space, and yet the key to using this data is calibration. Users need data that can be trusted, so, data need to be calibrated, where accuracy and characterisation can be traced, as well as being interoperable with other missions.

“There shall be synergistic and supportive coordination on Cal/Val and data quality across a range of domains – this is the function of VH-RODA.”