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Australia's new prototype vehicle to improve Earth observation satellites' accuracy

CANBERRA, Sept. 26 — Australian scientists developed a prototype autonomous vehicle, "Outback Rover," to help scientists to improve the accuracy of Earth observation satellites that provide valuable data to Australia's mining and agricultural industries, according to a latest research statement from CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, on Thursday.

Just as the Mars Rover Curiosity is gathering information about our neighboring planet, CSIRO's affectionately nicknamed 'Outback Rover' is helping to calibrate satellites that provide clues to Earth's soil condition, mineralogy and vegetation.

According to the statement, accompanied by researchers from Japan, China, Israel and France, CSIRO scientists recently took the rover prototype on a mission to Lake Lefroy — a huge salt lake in remote Western Australia — to see if they can automate the satellite calibration process.

This is where information gathered by satellites is matched against measurements taken on-ground and compared for accuracy, said Professor Arnold Dekker, Director of Earth Observation and Informatics at CSIRO.

"Satellite data is used for resource exploration, environmental monitoring and agricultural management such as soil mapping. So it must be regularly cross-checked to ensure that observations are accurate," Dekker explained.

"This process is called vicarious calibration and is undertaken by ground crews who walk in grids or transects, taking measurements with hand-held devices known as spectrometers, as satellites travel overhead," Dekker added.

CSIRO's science leader for robotics Dr. Alberto Elfes said this could be about to change. He hopes the rover will be able to collect calibration data autonomously and send it wirelessly back to researchers.

"The ultimate goal is to have the rover operate alone, with scientists from over the world able to retrieve data from it or control it remotely in real-time," Dr. Elfes said. "For example, scientists could tell the robot to turn left or right, follow a sensor signature that is interesting or do a more detailed analysis in a particular area."

"Once we know we have acquired accurate data from satellites, it can be used for a range of applications. It can show us where to explore for mineral deposits and even allow us to monitor soils, which can provide great benefit to our farmers," Dr. Elfes said.

In addition, as well as ensuring the accuracy of the current suite of space traveling cameras and sensors, the information collected by the rover could also be used for the next-generation of satellites that will use high-resolution 'hyperspectral' images.

Owing to its sheer size, Australia is one of the world's biggest consumers of Earth observation data however it doesn't own any remote sensing satellites.

"This is why international collaborations like this are vitally important, and have led to major achievements such as our world- first continental scale mineral maps, derived from the Japanese ASTER sensor on board the NASA TERRA satellite," Professor Dekker said. (PNA/Xinhua)


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