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Satellites Capture the Glow of Ocean Bioluminescence with the Help of Standards


Scientists examining satellite images of the Earth’s oceans have discovered massive areas of ocean bioluminescence in 12 separate events over the past nine years. These intense episodes with trillions of glowing organisms were massive – the smallest area was a hundred times larger than Manhattan, and the largest exceeded the combined areas of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

Episodes of ocean bioluminescence occur when creatures produce their own light through a chemical reaction inside their cells. These underwater beings can control when they light up, typically producing a blue-green glow that travels through the water. Other sea creatures may emit a similar light because they eat bioluminescent organisms, or because they are host to bioluminescent bacteria. Bioluminescence helps animals attract prey, avoid predators, and possibly even communicate. Large concentrations of bioluminescence have long been difficult for scientists to track down, so the use of advanced satellite technology to aid scientists in locating these phenomena will contribute significantly to mankind’s ability to study and understand them.

The advanced satellites that provided these illuminating images were launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2011 and 2017, outfitted with sensors that are able to capture glimmers of light from the ocean. Prior to that, weather satellites provided blurry images of glowing seas that gave scientists insight into what discoveries were to come. Satellites have long relied on standards to guide their components, such as a standard developed by ASTM International that supports the use of radiometers similar to those found in weather satellites. ASTM G183-15, Standard Practice for Field Use of Pyranometers, Pyrheliometers and UV Radiometers, describes deployment conditions, maintenance requirements, verification procedures, and calibration frequencies for use of pyranometers, pyrheliometers, and UV radiometers in outdoor testing environments.

Satellites are also supported by standards that help prevent collisions and close approaches between objects in space. ISO 19389, Space Data and Information Transfer Systems – Conjunction Data Message specifies a standard message format for use in exchanging spacecraft conjunction information, enabling consistent warnings to owners and operators of satellites to inform them of conjunctions between objects in space. This standard was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee (TC) 20, Aircraft and space vehicles, subcommittee (SC) 13, Space data and information transfer systems. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the secretariat of this TC and SC, with SAE International serving as the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) administrator to TC 20 and ASRC Federal as TAG Administrator to SC 13.

Beyond satellites, a wide variety of ocean instruments collect data to inform scientific discoveries about the deep sea. This data and related metadata are processed and displayed on complex virtual instruments (CVIs), and an American National Standard developed by IEEE offers a framework for building a distributed ocean observing software system based on these CVIs. IEEE 2402, IEEE Standard Design Criteria of Complex Virtual Instruments for Ocean Observation, provides the guidelines for the CVI-based development process, covering management of observed data and metadata, virtual instrument engine based on geospatial information, and service interfaces for CVI interactions.

Learn more about these luminous events, and the satellites that aided their uncovering, in The New York Times: Satellites Spot Oceans Aglow With Trillions of Organisms.