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Fire station in space: Satellites detect forest fires

Three, two, one, ignition – and liftoff.” It’s a bright, beautiful morning as a SpaceX rocket takes off from Cape Canaveral into a cloudless sky. Space enthusiasts around the world follow the live broadcast. In his office in Munich, Björn Stoffers is rooting for his colleagues at the Ororatech start-up. They have been working towards this day for five years. At 5:33 pm German time, the control center said: “Ororatech separation confirmed.” The launch vehicle successfully put the Ororatech satellite into orbit. The team in Munich is happy, a dream come true for the founders.

50 percent more forest fires by the end of the century

This should be the start of an aid mission from space to the world’s forests. Because soon a satellite will use a thermal imaging camera to detect and report wildfires around the world very quickly, causing as little damage as possible. This is becoming more and more important as the risk of forest fires increases with climate change. The UN recently predicted a 50 percent increase in wildfires by the end of this century. In the past, lookout posts on watchtowers would look for signs of flames. Today, forest guards fly over trees in airplanes or helicopters, and drones are also used.

In accessible areas, pivoting cameras are installed on mobile phone masts or former watchtowers. But this is time consuming and usually only useful for commercial forests. “You can’t equip the entire Amazon with cameras,” says Bjorn Stauffers. Earth observation satellites have therefore been providing information on forest fires around the world for some time. However, images from 36,000 kilometers away are not very accurate for real-time early detection. The Ororatech satellite flies at an altitude of just 525 kilometers and can detect and report fires up to 100 square meters in size.

A nanosatellite is only the size of a shoebox. It is so compact that it does not require the cooling normally required by a specially designed infrared camera. “With cooling, the satellite would be significantly larger, more complex – and more expensive,” says Björn Stauffers. In addition to the camera, engineers have integrated a processor into the satellite, which processes the recordings in space and sends its warnings back to Earth as a kind of SMS. This is much faster than the typical transmission of several gigabytes of raw data to a ground station.