Draughty window or door? Now it can be seen from space | Climate crisis


A flotilla of British-built heat-sensing satellites is to be launched into Earth orbit to pinpoint badly insulated buildings across the planet. Seven thermal-imaging probes are being constructed in Guildford, and these are intended to play a key role in the battle against global heating by showing how homes, offices and cities can be made more energy efficient.

This week, the British space company Satellite Vu will announce that the first of its heat-sensing satellites is to be carried aloft early next year on a Falcon 9 rocket, the launcher operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

A further six probes will be put into orbit over the next two or three years – and some may be launched from spaceports now under construction in Cornwall, Shetland, north Scotland and other parts of the UK.

The aim of Satellite Vu’s programme is to create a fleet of probes that will be able to carry out a constant, worldwide survey measuring heat emanating from buildings. This will be achieved using high-definition infrared radiation detectors that will show where buildings are leaking significant levels of energy, and which are wasting power.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off: the satellites will be launched by the operator. Photograph: Chris O’Meara/AP

“Our satellites are going to be fitted with unique infrared cameras that can measure heat emissions from any building on the planet,” said Anthony Baker, Satellite Vu’s chief executive.

“At present, it is only possible to make broad surveys of heat being emitted in a neighbourhood. Our satellites will be fitted with super-high-resolution detectors, which will allow them to study individual buildings and show how much heat is escaping from them.”

He added: “The crucial point is that a lot of people want to get to the stage where we can achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, they face a lot of problems not just in generating power cleanly but in preventing heat being wasted from badly insulated offices, homes and factories.

“We will provide the data that will show companies, governments and local authorities across the world where they need to act and how they can cut their energy bills.”

Satellite Vu has raised £20m in venture capital to fund its programme and has received grants from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

The company expects to make money by selling its data to organisations and companies that are looking for ways to cut power bills as the pressure increases on nations to cut their carbon emissions.

The spacecraft that will carry out this monitoring are being constructed by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, which is based in Guildford. Each one will be able to operate night and day while measuring heat output on the ground with an accuracy of 2C (3.6F).

This data should have a wide range of applications, said Baker. It should help alleviate the effect of heat islands in cities, which can heat up far more severely than surrounding rural areas because of the prevalence of dense materials such as concrete and metal.

The data should also help monitor river pollution from factories, cut heating bills by ensuring buildings are energy efficient, assess the activity status of solar panels and monitor wildfire outbreaks in open land. However, the company has not yet decided on a name for its satellite programme.

“A lot of companies and authorities want to make improvements in the way we use energy and generate heat,” said Baker. “But they need to know exactly where to direct their efforts. By giving them precise data about where heat is being allowed to spill out of buildings into the open, we believe we can help them make a real difference and save energy.”