Vegetation swath

Meet the Proba-V team: Jean-Paul Malingreau, chair of the Vegetation International Users Committee

2 May 2013

Jean-Paul Malingreau has played a significant role in the Proba-V saga. He is the long-running chair of the Vegetation International Users Committee (IUC), the organisation that first raised the idea of extending Vegetation observation from the instrument’s original home on Spot-4 and Spot-5 to a new purpose-built platform.

Mr Malingreau works at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), looking into areas of scientific foresight and policy anticipation. His involvement in Proba-V date back to the early 1990s, when the Vegetation instrument was first proposed by the French space agency CNES to be placed onto the Spot platform.

Jean-Paul Malingreau

He is soon due to retire from the JRC, but plans to continue his work on the Committee, helping with the process of Proba-V entering service as well as potential successor missions to come. 

Where did the Vegetation series of instruments come from?

CNES first put the idea to the EC of making available in Europe a global monitoring instrument devoted to vegetation cover. I took part in the first evaluation of the concept at the end of the 1980s and continued refining the concept after that.

Medium- to low-resolution of vegetation had been taking place for a long time, initially using the AVHRR series of satellite instruments stretching back to the 1960s – but these were made for observing clouds and weren’t really optimal for vegetation observation.

SPOT 5
Spot-5

The instrument we ended up with: Vegetation, first on Spot-4 and then Spot-5, I really describe as a workhorse of global monitoring. It gives a basic dataset you can trust, really designed around dedicated measurements, oriented to understanding the state of the vegetation cover of the world on a day in-day out basis. You do your best to stick to that…

Continuity is really of value here, because since the 1980s man has started to change Earth’s vegetation cover so tremendously, and we want to document these things in a consistent way and not change instruments and approaches as we go. Continuity has a definite value in ecological, resource and climate studies.

So when the French announced they would not be able to continue the Vegetation series on Spot the Vegetation IUC managed to get the Belgian government interested in developing something on its own on the very different technical basis of small satellites.

Proba-V

Do you regard Proba-V as a gapfiller between ‘proper’ missions?

The original idea was what ESA called a ‘gapfiller’, to put something out quite quickly and cheaply to shrink any possible gap between the end of Spot Vegetation and the advent of comparable observing by GMES Sentinel-3, whose first satellite is due for launch in 2014–15 with a second satellite to provide global coverage by 2016–17.

Now we’ve been quite successful at doing that, the most recent meeting of the IUC has progressed moving towards a series of Proba-V satellites, not just a gapfiller. Sentinel-3 has ocean observation rather than land coverage as its main priority, so we are making the argument for a series of Proba-V satellites to secure day-in-day-out vegetation coverage measurements on a relatively cheap basis all the way to 2020.

Vegetation instrument

Any future Proba-V programme can be cheaper because it’s a recurring programme, but can also improve the performance, in the same way we’ve moved from 1 km resolution to the current 350 m resolution, we can then progress to 100 m resolution coverage of all across Earth every day, which would be a wonderful product for all sorts and scientific, natural resource and environmental applications.

How did the Vegetation instrument acquire this International Users Committee?

This was one of the features essentially attached to the overall Vegetation effort. The idea was there is no way of running a meaningful programme for scientific interest and future operations unless you fix the future user into the design and development stage of the system, and for that you have to have this group of people around the programme watching what is going on and confirming the options taken.

10-day Vegetation product

In that time it wasn’t very typical of the way things were approached: instruments were an engineer’s business on the space agency side. What you did have is expert committees around instruments and missions, but these experts wouldn’t necessarily be using the instrument data themselves. But having the users involved in this way gives credibility to our recommendations and shows the interest being taken from all over the world – we have members from the US, Brazil, China and South Africa as well as Europe.

I’ve been fortunate enough to chair the IUC since the 1990s, around when it first started. We can’t gather all Vegetation users together but select members on the basis of geography, user type, scientific background and expertise.

Aral sea monitored by Vegetation

What are the main uses of Vegetation data?

Agriculture and forestry are the main applications of the data today. It’s repetitive day-in-day-out monitoring, which tends to throw up things that happen that are not foreseen to happen. In agriculture one season is not enough, you have to follow various seasons one after the other to learn about agricultural production, productivity and use of land, as well as the whole issue of drought, floods and the impact of weather. That’s the key use, to follow the development of crops in a constantly changing environmental context – and there are always surprises.

On the forest side, obtaining a global view of deforestation in both tropical and boreal forests is not easy. Instead of patching together different individual studies, having a single dataset that shows what is happening across the globe in a similar like-for-like way is invaluable. We have seen rapid surges and declines of deforestation in the Amazon basin, and also central Africa. Things move fast and you need to be ready – forest cover is a unique asset for both the countries involved and the world.

Proba-V being enclosed within Vega launch fairing

Do we have to build a new mission? Couldn’t we buy equivalent data cheaper from abroad?

It might be possible to buy similar data on the open market, but there are other aspects of the question. Isn’t it worth having some autonomy in observing Earth? The way things are evolving in terms of use of resources and environmental impacts, it might be a strategic mistake to become dependent on other people for such critical data on resources.

Vegetation data are already extremely important for estimating crop production in both Europe and the wider world, in the context of trade but also humanitarian aid. I see this issue as becoming more related to security over time, with emerging issues such as water access and resource use. So from that point of view there’s justification.

There’s also the strong push for innovation bound up with small satellites getting cheaper and lighter. Innovation is really the name of the game these days, and this kind of approach provides a good basis to encourage it.

The context in which satellites operate will also be changing – future missions will be less standalone and more bound up into much larger data collection systems, with novel approaches such as data mining and social networks also harnessed in addition to help find out what is going on. Smaller, lightweight satellites such as Proba-V should fit such a future very well. 

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