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New space project will help track more than just weather

A new European weather satellite will not only improve forecasting of freak weather conditions but could also help fight famine and track killer diseases. The Meteosat Second Generation (MSG) project has been developed through close cooperation between the European Space Agen...

A new European weather satellite will not only improve forecasting of freak weather conditions but could also help fight famine and track killer diseases. The Meteosat Second Generation (MSG) project has been developed through close cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and EUMETSAT, the European Organisation for the exploitation of meteorological satellites, and is set to provide an essential service for at least the next 12 years. It is more than just a satellite, encompassing a series of three spacecraft operated from the EUMETSAT control centre in Darmstadt, Germany where the data from space will be processed then beamed around the world. In Europe, MSG will lead to better weather forecasts especially predicting freak conditions such as sudden thunderstorms or blankets of fog. But it is in Africa where the impact will be revolutionary. Through a project known as Preparation for Use of MSG in Africa (PUMA), initiated by EUMETSAT and funded by the European Commission through the European Development Fund, the necessary hardware and training has been built up to allow detection of the conditions that will lead to famine. Dr. Michael Rasmussen from the Institute of Geography at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark uses a very common parameter called the Normalised Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) to detect if photosynthesis in plants is taking place or not and therefore predict a famine. MSG will help dramatically. 'For us the big advantage of MSG will be the new data, we can really identify changes in vegetation, and quickly.' Dr. Michel Legrand from the Université des Sciences et Technologies de Lille agrees. He has studied the impact of dust in the atmosphere over Africa. 'This is a new satellite, a new generation that will give us the opportunity to be really efficient, to make a difference. One of the difficulties so far has been the need to do a correction to allow for the atmospheric contribution to our readings. With the fact that MSG has more channels, the atmospheric correction can be more accurate, and it will give us a true picture of the crops - so if there's a crop failure, it might be possible to spot it'. MSG will also have wider applications in tracking the progress and predicting the paths of two widespread potential fatal diseases, malaria and meningitis. Dr. David Rogers from the University of Oxford has been working with Meteosat to track conditions favourable for mosquitoes which spread malaria from infected to healthy people. With good data he says he can develop a sound model that will be an effective early warning system for a disease that kills two million people each year. 'The plan is to anticipate the extent of malaria in seasonal areas, now that's often the function of the amount of rainfall which you can detect by satellite. You'd have a warning time of about a month or so. That would allow you to warn the health authorities so they can deliver the drugs that people need.' Detecting and tracking meningitis is more complex but the MSG will provide a valuable tool claim researchers from Columbia University in the USA. Dr. Madeline Thomson says 'We've been using Meteosat and other data, and our preliminary work has suggested there is a relationship in the inter-annual variability of meningitis epidemics with the satellite data we have, the situation is still not clear enough, to give us a model we can really work with, a model we can depend on'. MSG may meet the need.