How can space contribute to water resource management, hydrology or any water related field?
Space assets have significant potential to cope with water related natural disasters by the application of real-time monitoring. Throughout my work at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) as a satellite engineer, I have gained insight about how data we hold can help develop a detailed understanding of dynamic environmental events over time, and suggest improvements for water resource management as well as disaster responses and mitigation. For example, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) enables monitoring of an area throughout the night and even through cloud coverage. This is but one example of how satellite technology significantly contributes to an immediate response of water related disasters by combining mission instruments such as optics’ cameras and SAR. These space monitoring activities also benefit rural communities in developing water management strategies such as dam control by detecting the deterioration of the structure which ALOS-2, as an example, utilized SAR technology to do so. In addition, satellite technology is used in establishing early warning systems. At the International Space University, I participated in AWARE (Adapting to Water and Air Realities on Earth) project. This project analysed adapting a satellite based alarming system for floods in emerging countries, an approach eventually adapted to developed nations such as the Netherlands. Both emerging countries and developed nations still need more space aided technology for adjusting to climate change on the Earth. In conclusion, space technologies are one of the key solutions to mitigate climate change, natural disasters (including monitoring), and help connect the world as one.
How does your professional and personal experience relate to water?
My professional experience directly relates to water management as the satellite I’m currently working on called Advanced Land Observation Satellite -4 can detect the change of the ground water on land by comparing them over time. The predecessor of ALOS-4 is called ALOS-2 which contributed to providing prediction of floods over time when heavy floods occurred in Japan. My university is located in Sendai, Japan where a huge earthquake hit on March 11th, 2011. This earthquake resulted in a tsunami with an estimated height of 16.7 meters. When I was assigned to work at JAXA for a satellite which helps prevent natural disasters, I strongly felt that space applications are key to tackle natural disasters.
Drawing on my personal experience I have a strong connection to the ocean. I learned swimming from age 5, so I feel natural surrounded by water. Thanks to my family, I got a junior open water scuba diving license at the age 10. These experiences have led me to develop a strong connection with deep-water diving; being under the ocean is one of my favourite activities on Earth because I feel like the environment is like a simulation of extravehicular activity.
However, through my exploration of the ocean, I’ve witnessed first-hand how human activities cause damage to the beautiful ocean environments and the impact on its inhabitants. For instance, I saw how garbage floating on the ocean surface ends up suffocating turtles who mistake our trash as jellyfish (one of their favourite foods). I’ve seen Scuba divers save marine animals which were trapped, the animal legs tangled and entwined in garbage. Besides, coral leaves which were colourful and vibrant, suffered bleaching events and dyeing, turning to a white pale colour due to anthropogenic influence of global warming.
I believe space applications offer unique solutions which can save the ocean by observing change over time and they have the ability to cover any place on the Earth to identify and mitigate areas of concern before the environmental damage becomes too great.
You were part of the Adapting to Water and Air Realities on Earth project, could you elaborate a bit on that and share your experience?
In the sizzling summer of 2018, I participated in the Space Studies Program (SSP) with the International Space University (ISU). It was hosted in the Netherlands which has been known for centuries, for its advanced water management system. At ISU, I participated in a project called Adapting to Water and Air Realities on Earth (AWARE) which consists of 33 participants from 15 different countries. In this project, we aimed to provide solutions for flood and air quality risks due to climate change for vulnerable cities, by utilizing both data acquired from Earth Observations (EO) and ground-based sensors. Our proposal outlined the use of electrochromic coatings on lampposts. The lamppost would change color according to the voltage applied, to act as an early warning system to the public. In the event of flooding, the lampposts, which would be connected to each other by the internet of things (IoT), could help people evacuate to safer locations. As a team project with members from both diverse backgrounds and cultures, we learned climate change is affecting the whole world. Hence, we have to adapt to the changing environment.
As an aerospace engineer what was the most interesting thing you have learnt about designing satellites aimed at measuring water related parameters?
As an aerospace engineer, the most interesting thing about designing satellites in measurement of water related parameters is to define the sensors. Because there are so many sensors to choose from depending on the target scope. The challenge for designing satellites are described below.
First, measurement of water requires long term observation as geological water shape changes dynamically by time and seasons. Therefore, we need combined GIS and remote sensing data of the area to be able to compare changes over time. Moreover, frequency of the observation is critical in order to respond quickly to disasters.
However, there are a variety of satellite images and different sensors applied from many countries; with so much variation in the data this can make it difficult to predict the situations in urgent circumstances. One solution is to create a more centralized platform to access the data. Sometimes, EO data is restricted for access until the emergency happens, so it is difficult to prepare in advance. Analysis of EO data needs specific analytical software skills to study as it is difficult to understand the data correctly, thus establishing accessible tools both in optics and SAR for water measurement parameters are required in the future.
So far, I’m most amazed by SAR technology as it enables monitoring throughout the day- night cycle and through clouds. As I mentioned above, these data need to be accessible to the public and also easier to understand.
What drives/defines the design of satellite sensors? How do you increase the scope of what is measurable, in terms of granularity, but also in terms of physical reality?
Satellite sensors are defined by purpose of the mission. In the preliminary phase of the satellite development, engineers carefully select the most suitable sensors in terms of cost, weight, structure, and products. Sensors serve different purposes depending on the objects. For example, most known sensors utilized on satellites are optical sensors as it is easier to grasp the change in observation without processing, just like we use satellite image data in navigation. Some sensors just receive the signals or reflection of the wavelength while others send wavelength by themselves and receive it. These sensor technologies are increasing day-by-day regarding the capacity of the data and precision.
What potential do nano-satellites or CubeSats carry for water resource management?
One of the largest potentials in the use of nano/micro satellites resides in their low cost and manufacturing time. Nano-satellites and CubeSats are significantly cheaper to manufacture than large satellites. Lower cost encourages more research and development for the mission to test new instruments, are accessible by university students, and also gives opportunities for those countries which couldn’t previously afford to build their own satellites, building their space capability. Moreover, having more satellites increases the coverage and frequency of the observation. Therefore, nano-satellites and CubeSats increase more possibilities for water observation.
What do you need to innovate and what would your ideal working environment look like?
My ideal environment for working is where people don’t label themselves by ages, titles or genders. Everyone has strengths, so challenging something new which helps employees explore more of their potential should be encouraged in the working environment. Luckily, currently at my work, my bosses allow me to try new things while learning about skills, mindsets, and knowledge as a satellite engineer. Attitudes of colleagues are important for making the project successful as well. My ultimate ideal working environment is where people from all over the world show their best talents at work and give something meaningful back to society.
What do you think is poorly understood in the field of aerospace engineering and where do you see unharnessed potential for water resource management?
Shortening the steps towards more accessible space technologies will benefit countries throughout the planet to help water resource management, for example, through agricultural management and disaster mitigation related to water. Therefore, cost reductions and easier manufacturing processes of space technologies are vital.
The greatest challenge when it comes to manufacturing aerospace products is that materials need to be more resilient than those on the Earth, particularly regarding radiation exposure, vibration, and thermal perspectives. In order to make aerospace technology more common we must apply the methods used in mass production to specialized materials. When satellite/rocket factories are able to be auto-manufactured, it will reduce the cost and difficulty of production and require less handmade delicate work.
In addition, raising awareness of space technologies in everyday life is important. The space industry itself has significant impacts on our everyday lives providing services such as maps, GPS, and weather forecasts. However, people don’t see these connections between aerospace technology and their daily life. In order to raise awareness of space technologies, I believe science education and outreach to the public are crucial. Someday, I hope “Rocket science”, the terminology related to aerospace (currently considered for impossible and difficult) will be seen as reachable, understandable and friendly technologies that make our life richer.
How does space technology contribute to water related aspects of the SDGs?
SDG 11 focuses on “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Water related disasters, especially flash floods caused by abnormal weather, threaten the urban communities and the lives of those who reside there as technologies are not adapted yet. Moreover, sea level rises heavily impact life on islands as it takes over the places for residents to live. Hence, satellite technology covers the whole globe which contributes to managing disasters. SDG 13 states “Climate Action”. Nowadays, the world is experiencing abnormal weather which causes flash floods. Moreover, sea level rises, due to climate change, affect nations in Pacific Islands. Thus, monitoring the change utilized by satellite technology will help the world mitigate climate change. It is important that data obtained from space observations is freely accessible and equally distributed among nations that require it.
How could these examples be built upon and expanded in the future?
We can first provide mitigating technologies to countries which cannot afford owning a satellite, such as maps which show early warning by utilizing space applications, a water gauge, and evacuation methods. For example, providing geographical data obtained from satellites by developed nations can be utilized for evacuation from floods, and sea level rises. It’s critical to tackle challenges by detecting the cause and results.
Secondly, education about water management using satellite technologies in emerging countries will help them comprehend the benefits of monitoring from space. As such, holding workshops to teach the locals about global scale impact by everyday life and how we can prevent it by changing behavior will lead to a long-term effect on lives. Building value for the public to support the development of space capability can then follow. In conclusion, empowering emerging countries with the technologies for mitigation of water related disasters will result in a decreasing number and intensity of damages caused by disasters. As such, Japan is unique in being able to cooperate with such countries by providing technologies and data through education, as it has experienced tsunamis, floods, and other disasters which it tackled by utilizing satellite data.
As a young professional, what do you feel is missing in the current scientific debate and management of water resources?
I strongly feel the need for talking more about the solution as a global community for water management, rather than by one individual country. About 70 % of the surface area on the Earth is covered by water, thus all nations are responsible for water resource management. Water changes form as it circulates the biosphere, thus monitoring and awareness of any changes due to human activities or natural phenomena would help us swiftly realize the abnormalities occurring on the earth. It is crucial that every nation can contribute as this issue affects the whole earth that we share together. In addition, as a satellite engineer, I believe satellite data can contribute greatly for water resource management by choosing the right instruments for monitoring water (precipitation, humidity, sea level, solid ice mass etc.). Hence these technologies should be widely introduced in the world.
You are a young female aerospace engineer, what has been your experience in a male dominated domain? What would you like to share with other young women?
Currently at work, I'm the only one female engineer in my 20s on the satellite project team. Luckily, I have one female boss who understands how it feels to be working in a male dominated environment, so she puts effort into making me feel more comfortable and accepted. I greatly appreciate I have someone like her as my role model. I thank not only her, but every woman who has been in the same situation before me. Work environments advancing the realization of gender equality have become more understood in my generation, which makes it much easier to be fairly evaluated. The message for those who are hesitant to join anything because of gender balance, please find a mentor who has experienced it before. You can eventually be the one who opens the new door for the next generation. In addition, even when I was a student at university, there were approximately 10 % female in the class. However, it didn't matter to me whether my colleagues were male or female. Of course, it’s sometimes easier to understand people with the same gender, however, it doesn’t stop me from dreaming to be an aerospace engineer. I hope in the future, there will be more female engineers who pursue dreams of space, and gender balance is no longer an issue so that a question like this doesn’t need to be asked.
What is your favourite aggregate state of water and why?
I would say liquid is my favorite state of water as it’s very essential for life to form. Also, I love swimming and floating on the water. Scuba diving made me realize a totally different world exists under the ocean with different shapes and sounds. As a Japanese, it’s very common to take a hot bath every day and relax. To me, drinks are almost my snacks as I like to prepare several drinks once and take a sip each time to enjoy hot, cold, bitter, and sweet tastes while at work.