Marine Debris, the Urban Heat Island Phenomenon… Tackling Social Issues with Thermometer Satellite[Space Brothers Collab #24]

Warpspace Inc.
6 min readNov 10, 2023

“Space development” describes a wide range of developments and their objectives. In this series, we will contemplate the present and future of space development with Astronaut Serika Ito, who has been appointed Chief Dream Officer of Warpspace.

In this 23rd issue, we welcomed Professor Shirasaka Seiko from Keio University’s Graduate School of System Design and Management to discuss the use of satellites for disaster prevention and disaster-resilient social systems.

©︎ Koyama Chuya/Kodansha

The marine plastic problem as I saw it in Qatar

Serika: Hi Anthony, nice to meet you. I understand that you founded Satellite Vu after working for a satellite company for many years.

Anthony Baker, CEO of Satellite Vu

Anthony: My name is Anthony Baker. Yes, I have been working in the space industry for more than 25 years. I have scaled businesses in the UK, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Qatar for space companies, especially in the satellite communications sector.

Serika: What inspired you to found Satellite Vu?

Anthony: I read a report about plastic waste floating in the ocean and learned that it took two years to measure plastic waste that had been dumped in rivers and washed into the ocean. Qatar, where I was living at the time, is a peninsular country facing the Persian Gulf, so the ocean was very close to me. Living by the sea, I knew I had to play in the sea!

I liked marine sports, sailing, and snorkeling, and I didn’t want plastic trash in the ocean to ruin this precious natural resource. To know where plastic litter is coming from, it is not enough to report on the state of the ocean every few years. I thought that there must be a better way to do this with space, so I started looking into how to do it. I had the knowledge and experience to build a company, so I thought I could make a difference. Then I left Qatar and went to England to look into satellite technology that could help detect marine plastic debris, and I came across thermal infrared sensors which might be a candidate solution.

Serika: So, your awareness of the challenges of marine plastic debris led you to found Satellite Vu?

Anthony: Yes. Unfortunately, however, we failed to find in the early days a stakeholder who would pay for this marine plastic litter solution. Satellites are very expensive, so we need a revenue-generating use case. So, we pivoted the business to another business using satellites equipped with thermal infrared sensors, with the intention of providing some of the collected images to universities and research institutions that are working on global challenges such as marine plastic debris issues.

Thermal infrared sensors are like thermometers, and when mounted on a satellite, they can locate from space where energy is being emitted, from the surface of objects and building structures. Detecting marine plastic debris will likely require a combination of different types of satellite imagery, not just thermal infrared satellites. I don’t think our satellite imagery will solve everything, but I would be happy to contribute to the research!

HOTSAT, the world’s first Earth thermometer

A waterfront industrial complex in Chiba Prefecture captured by HOTSAT-1:©︎Satellite Vu
Comparison with optical satellite images
(Left: Image by Sentinel-2 L2A ©︎Credit: European Union, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2023, processed with EO Browser
Right: image by HOTSAT-1 ©︎Satellite Vu)

Serika: In June, Satellite Vu’s first satellite, HOTSAT-1, was launched with a thermal infrared sensor onboard! Congratulations!

Anthony: Thank you. The test operation of HOTSAT-1 was completed, and full-scale operations finally started in November! First, we will provide monitoring services for industrial plants and other facilities such as those for energy-related businesses. We plan to have at least eight satellites in operation within the next few years. We are currently developing a second satellite, which we plan to launch in 2024. With eight satellites, we will be able to observe Tokyo, for example, once every two or three hours day and night.

Many countries and companies around the world have declared an objective to be “carbon neutral,” meaning that they will reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions to zero. However, many of them do not know where to start, and even when they do take action, they do not know how much change it will bring about.

We can help by looking at a factory with Satellite Vu’s HOTSAT, you can measure the effect of rethinking thermal efficiency.

The world’s highest-resolution thermal infrared satellite

Serika: What are the features of HOTSAT?

Near Daikoku Pier, Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture captured by HOTSAT-1
©︎Satellite Vu
Comparison with optical satellite images
(Left: Image by Sentinel-2 L2A ©︎Credit: European Union, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2023, processed with EO Browser
Right: image by HOTSAT-1 ©︎Satellite Vu)

Anthony: Compared to other satellites with thermal infrared sensors, HOTSAT has a much better resolution. Previous thermal infrared satellites had a resolution of about 100 meters (100 meters per pixel), but HOTSAT can monitor at a resolution of 3.5 meters (3.5 meters per pixel). This means that HOTSAT can see individual buildings whereas previous thermal infrared satellites could only observe objects as large as a field.

At 3.5m resolution, I can even look at buildings, streets, and parking lots to determine the location of the contributing structures of the “heat island effect,” where temperatures are higher in urban areas; thereafter mitigating action can be taken for example planting trees to shade car parks.

What’s more, HOTSAT has a video camera! One second of the video consists of 25 images, so, for example, I can film the scene of a wildfire from space and see how fast and in which direction the flames are spreading. This would be useful information for firefighters.

Serika: Satellites that can take video are rare; how long does it take for HOTSAT images to reach the ground?

Anthony: Our objective for the first and second satellites is to send satellite commands and observations within two hours, and the data will be downloaded on the ground. However, some users may want to receive data more quickly, and we plan to utilize relay satellites from HOTSAT-3 onward so that we can target to send satellite commands within 15 minutes. There is also a plan to analyze the data on the satellite before sending it to the ground to extract information such as the location of the fire and the speed at which the flames are spreading and deliver it to the ground as quickly as possible.

It used to cost $50,000 per kilogram to launch a satellite on a rocket, so we were always thinking about reducing the weight when developing satellites, but thanks to SpaceX, the price has come down to around $6,000, and weight is no longer a concern; we now design to optimize technical performance. The recent change in launch costs and agile satellite designs means we can now do more interesting things in space. And the most exciting thing in the next decade will be the development of new sensors. We started with a 3.5-meter resolution thermal infrared sensor, and we intend to further improve it to be able to detect more interesting things!

Serika: What do you think you can contribute to society through HOTSAT?

Anthony: Our mission is to make the world more sustainable and safer. Satellite data, which provides a bird’s eye view of the Earth from space, is a transparent and independent source of information. Satellite data should point people in the right direction to improve Earth and help governments, businesses, and the general public decide what to do next.

Serika: I guess the point is that satellite data is a highly transparent source of information. Thank you very much, Anthony!

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Our guest for the 24th in our series of conversations with Astronaut Serika was Anthony Baker, co-founder and CEO of Satellite Vu.

In the next installment, we will welcome Ms. Ayano Kido, President of sorano me, to discuss the potential of satellite data utilization for well-being and sustainability. Please stay tuned!

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Warpspace Inc.

Warpspace develops “WarpHub InterSat”, an optical inter-satellite data relay service. We will realize this service for LEO Sat operators by 2025.