UNC - Wilmington

International Effort to Study Ocean Ecosystems

University of North Carolina Wilmington, NASA and industry partners prepare to launch improved ocean-monitoring satellite to capture high-resolution ocean color images

In this day and age, when everything is a simple click away on your smartphone, creating the excitement of scientific discovery in the classroom is not an easy task. Inspired by the idea of providing a “larger than life” science project, Prof. John M. Morrison, from the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography and Center for Marine Science at UNC-Wilmington, spearheaded an effort to design a student-led CubeSat mission with the unique goal of oceanic research.

This course hoped to provide a “system of systems” that would set challenging but achievable objectives and a tangible deliverable of interest not only to students, but also to the scientific community and society at large. But it quickly became apparent that what started as a challenge to inspire, engage and educate students in STEM areas, would require an effort at a level that was significantly above that of a student-led activity.

The program took on a life of its own and evolved into a proof-of-concept mission for a low-cost, miniaturized and multispectral ocean color imager, named HawkEye, capable of flight on a CubeSat SeaHawk. This program is a unique public, private and federal partnership with support from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cloudland Instruments, Clyde Space Ltd., Spaceflight and NASA, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“It’s been a tremendous team effort to build two low-cost, next-generation, miniature ocean color sensors aboard CubeSats, and we are now ready to launch SeaHawk-1,” said Dr. Morrison. “We are working with Spaceflight to see it off into orbit. The collaboration with NASA will make the data from the SeaHawk-1 available to everyone for free. Our hope is to address a number of critical societal needs, especially in coastal regions by providing high-resolution ocean-color imagery. Through these images we will gain insight into the current state of the world’s oceans and the aquatic biosphere.”

A window into our global marine ecosystem

Satellite-derived ocean color data provides valuable insight into the global marine ecosystem on a synoptic scale. Access to this data has revolutionized biological oceanography and made important contributions to biogeochemistry and physical oceanography, fisheries and coastal management.

The satellite measures the sunlight reflected by the ocean, which can vary greatly depending on what is in it – namely, plankton, organic material or sediment. The color of the ocean appears in different shades of green depending on the amount of phytoplankton: The greener the water, the more phytoplankton or the higher the productivity. Phytoplankton are at the base of the ocean’s food chain, using carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and, in turn, providing almost half the oxygen we breathe and the biomass to sustain fisheries, whales and sharks. Changes in phytoplankton biomass have major implications on the overall health of the ocean.

Prof. Morrison explained, “In a highly productive coast such as Seattle, it may be full of phytoplankton, so it’s green or brown. In the tropical areas, such as the Bahamas, Hawaii or the Caribbean, there is not a lot of phytoplankton or nutrients so the water appears crystal clear and the ocean looks blue.” The wide spectrum of colors in between is what biologists use to try to understand our marine ecosystem.

Technology breakthrough

Measuring and understanding ocean color is critical to monitoring our oceans. However, current satellite imagery is not as effective as it could be. One important challenge that satellites currently face is in coastal areas, where land is generally more reflective than the ocean, causing the sensor to saturate and alter the resulting ocean color signal. In addition, the low resolution from current ocean-color satellite sensors means smaller but still critical coastal-area details are not clear or definitive enough.

Morrison and his team’s satellite, named SeaHawk, addresses these problems with a sensor that is 100 times smaller than current sensors, does not saturate over land, and has a resolution that is eight to 10 times higher.

Hawkeye’s high-spatial resolution imagery will improve our ability to monitor fjords, estuaries, coral reefs and other near-shore environments where stresses causes by human activity are often acute,” said Prof. Morrison.

The typical global satellite sensors that are now in orbit cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require decades of development from design to launch, whereas the SeaHawk CubeSat will cost less than $5 million to develop and launch. These reductions are possible thanks to the CubeSat criteria for size and development, using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for electronics and structure.

Another aspect critical to keeping costs down is the availability of cost-effective rideshare options, like the ones offered by Spaceflight. “With this being our first launch and having limited knowledge around launching satellites, Spaceflight has proved to be invaluable. Their team has led us through all of the complexities involved with getting our spacecraft on orbit,” shared Prof. Morrison. “The Spaceflight team has been as committed to a successful launch and mission as our own team!”

Finally, the development and launch cycles are significantly shorter. These new satellites and sensors can be developed and launched within three to five years, whereas the traditional development timeline for a NASA global satellite is about 10 years. Following its agreement with the Moore Foundation, UNCW is also going to make the details of the sensor design and the CubeSat bus design freely available on its website. The release of this information, along with expedited production, will enable broader use of the satellite sensors and increase the amount of ocean color data readily available.

Global impact

Morrison, his team of students and colleagues, and their partners are eagerly anticipating the launch of SeaHawk and the subsequent data it will gather and provide for the world’s benefit.  They hope to look at how material exchanges between land and ocean vary and change, and how these material exchanges influence a local ecosystem’s biogeochemistry and habitats.

This technology can be used for a wide array of activities, such as studying red-tide and phytoplankton blooms, as well as monitoring oil spills. As pollution issues continue to plague the planet, the satellite could assist in documenting the health of fisheries, coral reefs and other habitats with human-caused stresses.

The application possibilities for this new technology are endless. Biologists and other researchers and investigators are eager to use the satellite imagery provided by UNCW, NASA and their partners to monitor acute local changes in relation to large global impacts. SeaHawk is paving the way for others to better understand and analyze our delicate marine ecosystem, a part of our world that has been elusive for far too long.

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