The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters is an international consortium of space agencies that was founded in 1999 by the European space organisation, ESA, and the French space agency, CNES.
In the event of a natural disaster or a major technical incident, the consortium rapidly and efficiently provides national disaster management authorities and relief organisations with data from Earth observation satellites.
Radar satellites supply images day and night
DLR's chief contribution is data from its radar satellites, TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X. These satellites are capable of delivering detailed images at very short notice, independently of clouds or daylight. As water and land surfaces can be distinguished very clearly in these radar images, they are ideal for generating maps after flood disasters. Information from TerraSAR-X may also be helpful in other types of disasters, such as earthquakes, for example. In certain cases, DLR will also supply optical data from the RapidEye satellites, especially in case of disastrous forest fires or particularly large-scale events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
Universal Access permits worldwide use of Charter data
Within the Charter's co-ordinating bodies the DLR Space Administration is constantly engaged in enhancing its services. In the autumn of 2012, members launched an initiative that represents a milestone in the history of the Charter: Universal Access. Until then, only authorised users from about 40 countries as well as United Nations organisations had been entitled to request help from the Charter. Now, any national disaster control authority worldwide can do so, thanks to Universal Access. The intention is to eliminate the large 'white spots' that still persist on the map of Africa, parts of Asia, and South and Central America, and to enable all national authorities to obtain assistance from the Charter quickly and directly.
To activate the Charter, the first step in every case is an emergency call to the European Space Agency's facility at Frascati, Italy, where the call is examined to see whether the entity requesting assistance is an authorised user and all requisite data have been supplied. Next, the emergency on-call officer (ECO) enters the proceedings. Mandated by the Charter members on the basis of a weekly rota, the officer immediately orders suitable satellite data from participating space agencies. The ECO's work is finished only a few hours since the emergency call was received.
Then, the Charter's Executive Secretariat goes into action. Consisting of employees from all Charter organisations scattered around the globe, the secretariat checks whether the emergency call is justified and whether activating the Charter makes sense. If it should arrive at the conclusion that it does not, the data orders placed by the ECO will be cancelled. In other words: officers at the secretariat supervise the proper use of the resources provided by the Charter member agencies as well as overseeing the operation of the Charter as a whole.
If activation is found to be justified, a project manager will be appointed. At the same time, information about the activation will appear on the website of the Charter. The project manager forms a link between the space agencies that provide data and the requesting users and their particular requirements. He or she ensures that users are provided with information in the appropriate form: while some disaster management authorities are equipped to analyse satellite images themselves, others need to be provided with complete maps. In normal circumstances, the project manager's assignment will end when the Charter activation procedure is closed, after around two weeks.
Until joining the Charter as its eleventh full member in October 2010, DLR had already been supporting the Charter through ESA since 2002. Meanwhile, the consortium has expanded further. Under its Charter membership, the DLR Space Administration co-operates closely with the Centre for Satellite Based Crisis Information (DLR ZKI) at Oberpfaffenhofen. The ZKI organises the provision of data with funding from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi). It also assumes the role of ECO for a week up to six times a year.