How satellites rule your world

Satellites are awesome. To be honest, I expected to be fed up with them by now. However, after three years of a PhD where I use satellite images daily, I still find them utterly fascinating. I may use them to study the Earth’s surface, but satellites secretly rule your world too. By the time you’re reading this, you may have unsuspectingly used over 30 satellites. This post is inspired by an excellent documentary I watched a few months ago, called ‘In Orbit: how satellites changed the world’.

Satellites rule your alarm clock, the weather forecast and probably your daily commute…and you haven’t even sat down at your desk yet. This is incredible considering that just 57 years ago, only stars twinkled in the night sky. Now over 6,000 satellites circle Earth, surreptitiously gazing down on you. Without satellites I wouldn’t be doing a PhD; I think they are one of the greatest scientific achievements.

Earth's satellites
Satellite surrounding the Earth. Photo: Getty Images

SPOT 5 is a satellite that I use to pick out and analyse volcanic features at Kenyan volcanoes. Satellite images are a perfect tool for monitoring as you can keep an eye on them from the comfort of your own desk. SPOT5 is used for a whole lot more than volcanology though. Did you have cereal this morning? This satellite also provides data about where it’s suitable to grow wheat, and where to harvest the cereals that end up in your bowl.

You can’t have cereal without milk. The satellite SVN-41 helped deliver the milk you poured into your tea and cereal. I can’t possibly start the morning without a decent cup of coffee. The coffee beans are harvested from plantations that are monitored by a satellite called LANDSAT.

LANDSAT satellite. Photo: NASA

When you start looking, satellites that influence your day-to-day goings on are everywhere. Your alarm clock is controlled by satellite SVN43, your TV signal by ASTRA 2b. Switch to the news and live, global TV links are brought to you by AMC-3, EUTELSAT-23 and GALAXY-12. The Met Office has a number of satellites used to forecast the weather.

The documentary has some surprising facts:

Even the fuels you use, lottery tickets, train timetables all increasingly depend on satellites. They are changing our world; but satellites also further our understanding of the world.

The quote highlights the two main aspects of satellites – we use them to control our world but also to further scientific understanding on the Earth we live on and the Universe we’re part of.


Endnote: For the curious among you, my favourite satellites are: ENVISAT, ALOS, SPOT and LANDSAT. Do you want to know why?! Comment if you do and I’ll write another post!

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