Monday, July 19, 2010

U.S.-Egypt Project Uses Space Technology for Environmental Change

Cairo workshop results from Obama's promise to Muslim-majority nations

By Cheryl Pellerin - Science Writer

Scientists and representatives from U.S. and Egyptian technical agencies met with industry and university partners in Cairo June 14-17 to examine the role that remote sensing and other space technologies can play in helping Egypt address multiple environmental issues, including climate change.

The workshop, hosted by the Egyptian space agency, the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS), is one of many science and technology partnerships resulting from President Obama's commitment in Cairo in June 2009 to renew engagement with Muslim-majority countries.

Egypt is a newcomer to the space enterprise, having sent its first satellite into orbit in 2007.

NARSS Chairman Ayman El-Dessouky Ibrahim participated in the workshop and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden addressed the workshop and answered questions.

"While the majority of NASA's cooperation is accomplished with space-faring nations," those that have built and launched manned spacecraft, Bolden told a Cairo University audience June 15, "other nations are increasingly relying on the unique capabilities of space for day-to-day activities such as urban planning, resource management, communications, weather forecasting, navigation and disaster management."

The meeting's 100 participants included scientists from the Egyptian government; from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of Energy; from the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development in Nairobi, Kenya; and from U.N. Habitat, the U.N. agency that promotes sustainable urbanization and access to clean water.

"One objective of the workshop was to bring professional and technical people together to exchange ideas and help them make connections in this field," Marsha Goldberg of the Association of American Geographers, one of the conference organizers, told "I think it was successful in doing that because people went away having met their counterparts."


Information about Earth that comes from satellites, sometimes called geospatial information, is derived from combining new information technologies such as satellite remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems, and Web-based mapping tools like Google Earth to create multidimensional maps of an area that include information about an area's elevation, forest cover, population, roadways, water infrastructure, electrical grid and more.

Collecting and using geospatial information involves people, satellites, computers, special hardware and software, and training. Satellite sensors acquire images of the Earth and transmit the data to receiving stations worldwide. When the raw images are processed and analyzed, they can document changing environmental conditions like deforestation, desertification, pollution, floods, urban sprawl and global climate change.

The U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) has several elements: 24 satellites in Earth orbit with atomic clocks aboard, ground stations that control the system and receivers for users. Anyone with a GPS receiver can use the system. The technology is used in everything from cars, boats and airplanes to cell phones, wristwatches and computers. It is used in navigation, farming, mining, construction, surveying, routing of taxicabs, emergency vehicles and package-delivery trucks, and many other science and technology applications.


From the workshop in Cairo came a list of about 30 priorities for cooperation between scientists in the United States and Egypt for applications in agriculture, water, urbanization, archaeology, space weather and small satellites.

GPS technology, for example, is key to improving the efficiency of agricultural water use.

"This is known as precision agriculture, where a GPS device is attached to any part of a tractor to improve the application of fertilizer, insecticides and any other input, including water, to an agricultural field," said Fernando Echavarria of the Space and Advanced Technology Office, State Department Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.

"When you have a population like Egypt's with more than 80 million people who can only cultivate less than 3 percent of the national territory along a very narrow buffer on both sides of the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta," he said, "improving the efficiency of water use for agriculture becomes critical. And it will become increasingly important as the climate changes."

Proposals for possible future U.S.-Egypt collaboration include:

. With NARSS and NOAA's National Weather Service, engage in projects involving satellite-based environmental monitoring to protect coastlines and predict weather.

. With NARSS and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, use data from Egypt's first remote sensing satellite, EgyptSat-1, to study water balance, manage disasters and improve atmospheric models.

. With NARSS, NASA, NOAA and Chapman and Cairo universities, assess the impact of climate change by using satellite data to monitor Nile River water resources, agriculture, land use changes, desertification and soil erosion.

. With Purdue University and Egyptian universities, improve regional public health surveillance by using remote sensing to detect and fight infectious diseases and create early warning systems for mosquito-borne diseases.

The projects will be forwarded for consideration to the board of the U.S.-Egypt Joint Science and Technology Fund, which provided initial funding for this workshop.


U.S. federal agencies and American companies and universities provided funding and expertise for the U.S.-Egypt workshop.

University experts attended from Arizona State University, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Purdue University in Indiana and Chapman University in California. Industry representatives from the Environmental Systems Research Institute and Trimble Navigation Limited, both based in California, gave presentations.

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(By the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)