A commemorative Titanic stamp from Gambia.

Space can help prevent another Titanic

Earth observation and communication satellites would help prevent another tragedy like Titanic, the UK Space Agency says.

Sunday marks the 100 anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, after it hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland.

Over the past 100 years the technology available to ensure maritime safety has become increasingly sophisticated, the space agency says. In 1912, the Titanic had two lookouts in the crows nest and the binoculars were missing, it said.

“We now have an unprecedented understanding of our polar regions, iceberg movement and the oceans. A number of European satellites monitor the extent, thickness and movement of ice and the UK has had a key role in building these satellites and processing the data that have been gathered.”

In 2005 Polar View was set up, in part by the British Antarctic Survey, to provide monitoring and forecasting services in the Polar Regions. This includes sea ice and iceberg monitoring services, supporting ships by providing near real time detection of icebergs and information about sea ice distribution. These services rely heavily on data from Earth Observation satellites, in particular Canada’s Radarsat and ESA’s Envisat missions. Both of these satellites use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology. SAR is an active satellite, bouncing microwave signals off the surface of the earth allowing it to capture images any time of the day or night, whatever the weather. This is a distinct advantage over the look outs on board ships in 1912 as well as aircraft or even optical satellites which cannot see through cloud cover, the agency said.

Andrew Fleming, from the British Antarctic Survey said: “The availability of frequent satellite observations has increased greatly in recent years, especially from the European Space Agency. The radar images allow us to monitor round the clock and in all weather conditions, giving very current information about where the ice is. However it is not possible to spot every bit of ice in the ocean – even small bergs pack a huge punch. So the risk remains and grows if the number of ships in ice infested waters increases.”

The space agency also said that if a modern ship did hit an iceberg it would not experience the same communication problems the Titanic suffered. Using satellites, ships can now maintain contact regardless of the weather conditions anywhere in the world up to the extreme poles. This also gives them access to chart and weather updates, including Polar View iceberg updates.

Satellites can also be used to accurately find the location of ships. The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a shoebox sized signal detector able to find the global location of ships from space. The Titanic radio messages showed that during the sinking the Titanic and nearby ships had to continually update each other with their latitude and longitude. With satellites the projected course of the vessel can be tracked based on last known position and other ships in the area can be identified to help. Used at ground level, AIS was only effective between ships or near shore. By putting a receiver in space the signal can cover a much wider area out on the open ocean.

Further reading:

Read more of E&T’s coverage of the Titanic in our latest issue.

Read E&T’s feature Scanning Titanic for the future.

Read E&T’s feature Titanic’s legacy to communications.

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