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These Tiny Satellites Could Keep an Eye on Wildfires

Close your eyes. Imagine a world where satellites smaller than a shoebox could tell you about every fire burning on earth.

Now open them. You’re living in that world (or at least you will be in just a few years). NASA has announced an ambitious plan to surround the earth with hundreds of tiny satellites that could monitor wildfires in near real-time within the next three years.

A proposed constellation of satellites with thermal infrared imaging sensors that could locate wildfires.
Credit: NASA

The program, dubbed FireSat, could be incredibly valuable in a world where large fires are becoming more common due, in part, to climate change. Those large fires also release carbon dioxide, contributing to more climate change.

Numerous small fires, like those burning in Indonesia this year, create huge climate, air quality,  and health problems as well as wreak havoc on the climate. Add in the cost of fighting fires, which has increased more than sixfold since the mid-1980s, and the benefits of improved monitoring become clearer.

To keep an eye on blazes, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing sensors that can be loaded onto private-sector communication satellites that Arthur Lane, FireSat’s coordinator, said would likely be about half the size of a shoe box. The piggybacking will allow NASA to put the 200 or so sensors needed for global monitoring into space much faster than they’d otherwise be able to.

The host of mini-satellites can spot fires as small as 35 feet wide and will be able to alert authorities of their existence within 15 minutes of spotting them. They could then provide continuous updates on a fire’s behavior, allowing fire managers to make more informed decisions.

The first launch is targeted for late 2017, with the full system coming online as early as June 2018. While NASA released the news last week, the project has been under consideration since 2011. But the reason it has become a reality is the same reason your iPhone 6S is so much faster than your iPhone 4S while still costing the same price.

“It’s been driven by a confluence of technological maturity, new thought processes and software that is now becoming compact enough to be placed in small, powerful processors that have sufficient computational speed to work with the images,” Lane said.

The new system is expected to allow fire managers to target interventions more effectively. In locations like the western U.S. and Alaska, where large fires have become more common and destructive and put an increasing strain on wildfire fighting budgets, the satellites could help better allocate firefighting resources. That will become even more valuable as the world warms and wildfires become increasingly more common.

Lane said the satellites could also be used to monitor oil spills and, though it hasn’t been thoroughly vetted yet, gas flaring as well. The latter is also a contributor to climate change and improved monitoring could help rein in emissions.

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