Launch of HKUST-FYBB#1. Image: HKUST

HKUST launches its own satellite in higher education first

3 October 2023

The HKUST-FYBB#1 satellite, which will help forecast natural hazards, is designed to be the first of a constellation of environmental monitoring satellites run by the University.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) celebrated the successful launch of the HKUST-FYBB#1 satellite on 25th August in collaboration with Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd (CGSTL), marking the first earth-observing satellite launched by any university in Hong Kong.

The remote sensing satellite will create ‘digital twins’ of the Hong Kong landscape to predict and monitor hazards from landslides, as well as monitoring pollution, vegetation, and other aspects of the landscape.

The launch marks a remarkably swift and successful programme spearheaded by Prof Su Hui and Prof Zhang Limin. Su joined the University last year through the Global STEM Professorship Scheme as an expert in remote sensing, and it was conversations with Zhang, a landslides expert, about how to get faster and better-quality images that led the latter to suggest the university should have its own satellite.

Previously, Zhang had to rely on third-party satellite providers to get the data he needed for his studies, but if the university had its own satellite, he wouldn’t need to book time and could have much better access. While Su thought it was a long shot, she and Zhang approached senior leadership at the university and were pleased to get a positive response. Planning then began in earnest.

Multi-disciplinary team

They gathered a diverse team of engineers, scientists, and business experts from across the University, including undergraduate and postgraduate students. It was the students who had good links already with industry that led them to their commercial partners, CGSTL, based in northern China.

Su and Zhang knew the satellite would be expensive, and applying for traditional research funding would be a slow process, so working with senior leadership they reached out to potential private donors. By the second meeting, Mr Francis Yip Chi-Hung and his wife, Mrs Catherine Yip Ng Bun-Bun, were ready to support the project.

The combined efforts of students, senior management and the donors meant the project was ready to go within only six months of its conception. It was launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu, China, at 12:59 pm on 25th August 2023.

“Watching the launch was an unforgettable experience,” said Zhang, despite the anxiety about what could go wrong. “We were five kilometres away, but it was still extremely bright and extremely loud.” Within minutes the satellite had successfully entered its designated orbit, and after 90 minutes, it had sent back its first high-resolution image of northern China.

On 3rd September, the satellite took its first image of Hong Kong. The timing was auspicious: it came the day after Super Typhoon Saola passed by, and the storm impacts could be seen clearly in the images. Several days later, Hong Kong was hit by the largest rainstorm since records began in 1884, and the data was used to analyse the more than 100 landslides that resulted.

First images taken by HKUST-FYBB#1. Image: HKUST

Digital twinning

The HKUST-FYBB#1 satellite hosts optical sensors for measuring the reflectance of the surface. This means photographs, but also the ability to pick out features in different colour bands, such as the characteristic reflectance of vegetation, water, and open soil.

It has the highest resolution available to civilian satellites, with the ability to discern objects larger than half a metre. It also has a large swath, so each pass of the satellite can cover 150km. Once the data has been transferred from CGSTL’s cloud, HKUST researchers can analyse it for a range of uses: their aim is to create custom products for partners in government and industry, as well as for research.

One such product is a ‘digital twin’. These are digital representation of real objects: at the very basic level, the person you see through a Zoom call is a digital twin of the real person, captured by the camera and projected by the screen.

To create a city-scale digital twin of the slopes of Hong Kong, Zhang want to combine the new satellite data with that from ground sensors (rain gauges, seismographs, impact sensors, etc.) that detect landslide precursors. This system could then visualise landslides as they are happening, aiding emergency services.

HKUST-FYBB#1 is just the start. The team are already planning the next satellite in their quest for a constellation of satellites with a range of functions. Number two will be a sensor to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to help Hong Kong and mainland China in their efforts towards carbon neutrality.

As well as measuring the total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, by combining the measurements with chemical transport models they should be able to determine the sources and sinks of the gas, helping direct mitigation measures.

Capacity building

Beyond this one satellite, and beyond the constellation it will one day be a part of, the team say Hong Kong is the perfect place to develop serious capacity in remote sensing technology.

Su said: “Hong Kong is traditionally a centre for trade and commerce, but it is transitioning to a centre for innovation and technology development. It is a very international place, attracting top talent, and can act like a window for China to reach out to the whole world.

“Remote sensing connects a lot of different disciplines, including manufacturing, engineering, data processing, and software development, and could be a focal point for the government in the push for greater innovation.”

Zhang and Su are already making this a reality by training the next generation. Su has been teaching two new courses at HKUST: one about using remote sensing to monitor climate change, and one about using artificial intelligence to process the terabytes of daily data created by satellites.

Seminars for students and the public will introduce the topic to new audiences, and they are partnering with remote sensing companies to provide summer internships for students so they can gain hands-on experience.

In October they will have an information day at the University, which will include 200 middle-school students, courtesy of the donors. For the launch, Mrs Yip wanted to enthuse some even younger future scientists and engineers: 50 children were brought into the celebration event from a nearby kindergarten she sponsors.

HKUST President Prof Nancy Ip said: “The aerospace industry is both an integral part of national development strategies and one of the key areas of the University’s research efforts. The HKUST-FYBB#1 satellite marks our initial venture into the realm of satellite projects, which not only represents a significant step in aerospace science but also opens new direction for collaboration and exchange between the Mainland and Hong Kong.”