Some of the unseen tools used by rescuers following catastrophes like the Haiti earthquake, are satelites orbiting 800 kms above the earth. An army of satelites were pointed at Haiti almost as soon as reports of the earthquake were received.
Amongst them was the European Spot 5 Satelite, which sent images to the French Space Agency here in Toulouse, allowing scientists to evaluate the damage.
Says Laurent Maggiori, the Chief Operating Officer at the CNES (the “Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales”): “From just one image we can get details about 3,600 square kms of land. That allows us to cover large areas very quickly.”
When analysed, these images allow scientists to evaluate the degree of destruction. Marked in red for example, are zones which were 50% demolished. It’s vital information, which is transmitted directly to the rescue teams and to the UN, within the framework of an international charter.
Says Claire Hubert, Engineer: “These image interpreters are capable of showing which areas are more or less destroyed, so that rescue teams know where they should go first. It can also show where people are gathering so we know where to deliver aid like sanitation or field hospitals.”
These images are also studied here in Strasbourg by cartographers and engineers to discover which roads are completely impassable, and which are still practicable, – and to find out where people are and work out how to get to them.
Says Helene de Boissezon, Operating Officer Cnes: “We have drawn up a map showing the main assembley points visible on these images. So rescuers can use them to go directly to these places as a priority.”
Many space agencies have been working for the UN free of charge as their contribution to the Haiti rescue effort. They may not be visible, but their contribution is vital.