Next Phase of Seahawk-1 Ocean Color Satellite Research Takes Flight with $2.2 Million Moore Foundation Grant

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Seahawk-1 CubeSat, UNCW’s first nanosatellite, reached a milestone this month when it transmitted its 5,000th high-resolution ocean color image to NASA, further proving its viability and teeing up a new phase of UNCW research that will impact both the global scientific community, UNCW students and everyday citizens.  

“Because of the higher resolution images, we can see finer features on surface waters and land like swirls, eddies and fine changes to water quality,” said Dr. Philip Bresnahan, UNCW Earth and Ocean Sciences assistant professor at the Center for Marine Science. “We can investigate water quality parameters like algae blooms, sediment transport from dredging, construction or natural processes and how rivers pump sediment into bays.” 

Seahawk-1 orbits Earth 15 times a day, equipped with a tiny sensor named HawkEye that produces laser-sharp images that have almost 100 times better resolution than comparable ocean color satellites. Each of these images contain over 100MB of invaluable scientific data that ocean color researchers can use to study a wide array of topics such as climate change, erosion, pollution, at-risk marine species such as loggerhead turtles, and the coastal impact of major weather events like hurricanes and El Niños. 

Unlike most satellite images, the HawkEye sensor doesn’t saturate the colors over land. That means scientists can see fine features on land masses like icebergs, beaches or riverbanks. HawkEye can also capture narrow bodies of water such as the Intracoastal Waterway or the Cape Fear River. Dr. Bresnahan compares it to modern-day CSI technology. 

“These images are so clear that we can always zoom in closer and closer to clearly see those aquatic fingerprints,” Dr. Bresnahan said. 

The new phase of the project, led by Dr. Bresnahan, has four goals: (1) to keep Seahawk-1 operational and in tiptop shape; (2) to build community by letting other scientists know the unprecedented data and images are accessible for all to use and that researchers may request images in areas of interest via NASA’s Ocean Color Website; (3) to learn more about fine-scale variability in coastal water quality, uniquely enabled by this satellite; and (4) to encourage citizen science—the collection of data by members of the public for use by scientists—by developing low-cost sensors that any person can use to gather water samples on the ground that can be compared to the Seahawk-1 data, a process referred to as ground truthing.  

“To state it simply, our goal is to further science,” Dr. Bresnahan said. “We want to contribute broadly to the scientific community by getting the word out to other researchers looking at water quality and ocean color that all this fantastic data is now freely available through the NASA database. UNCW is one-of-a-kind in that no other university-government partnership leading to the design, launch, and operation of an ocean color satellite like this currently exists. This is top notch, federal-quality data.” 

New Funding 

New funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will continue supporting UNCW’s Seahawk-1 research, which began in 2015 under the leadership of retired faculty member Dr. John Morrison, Physics and Physical Oceanography professor. The Moore Foundation previously funded the project with a $4.3 million five-year grant so Dr. Morrison and partners – NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Hawk Institute for Space Sciences, University of Georgia, Cloud Land Instruments, Spaceflight Inc. and Clyde Space – could plan, develop, build and launch the mini satellite. Using the grant, UNCW launched the Sustained Ocean Color Observations using Nanosatellites project (SOCON), and after three years in development, the Seahawk-1 was commissioned in 2018.  

Now that Seahawk-1 is successfully in its operational phase, as of June 2021, the Moore Foundation will continue its support with a $2.2 million grant to build on Morrison’s legacy.  

“The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s continued financial support for the SOCON project is a testament to the critical success of the initial project, and a commitment to developing the new science and learning that can be accomplished with this advanced earth and ocean observing tool,” said Dr. Stuart Borrett, associate provost for research and innovation.   

UNCW Student Researchers to Assist Citizen Scientists 

The citizen science component of the research is another way to share what the Seahawk-1 is producing and also validate the data being gathered from space. 

“The main goal is to harness as much data as possible to make new coastal oceanographic discoveries, and advances in citizen science can help us do that,” said Jessie Wynne, a UNCW graduate student working on the project in Dr. Bresnahan’s CMS lab. 

Wynne will spend the next two years working with other graduate and undergraduate students at the Center for Marine Science to research and develop low-cost, high-quality in situ instruments that beachcombers, recreational boaters and others can easily use. In situ monitoring, based on a Latin phrase meaning “on site,” is the observation or measurement of events in their original place.  

Dr. Bresnahan has extensive experience with building oceanographic sensors for water quality and detection. One of his current projects includes developing the Smartfin, an example of an in situ instrument that equips surfers with a specialized surfboard fin that can measure wave depth and ocean temperature while they are surfing. 

“Science is one important approach to knowing about the world around us, and citizen science is exciting in part because of the opportunity to collaboratively engage and co-create this understanding with the public,” Dr. Borrett said.     

Long-term plans for the Seahawk-1 project include creating a traveling exhibit that would be featured at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science, University of Georgia, NASA and the Moore Foundation in the San Francisco Bay area.  

Dr. Bresnahan and co-investigator on the project, Dr. Sara Rivero-Calle, a former UNCW post-doctoral student who is continuing her SOCON work at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography at UGA, hope that by sharing the Seahawk-1’s superior capabilities for ocean color research with the global scientific community, it will ultimately lead to additional long-term missions and the deployment of additional Seahawk CubeSats. 

-- Krissy Vick

Monterey/San Francisco area
A very recent (Sept. 3) image of San Francisco and Monterey Bays, including both the "true color" (i.e., what our eyes would see more or less) and the chlorophyll-a concentration. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is located in San Francisco. Photo: Alan Holmes/Gene Feldman