Satellite information and space-based monitoring play an increasing role in the Russian economy. Studying the Earth from space can help scientists to understand how global ecosystems and the climate interact. This could make it easier to predict man-made and natural emergencies, such as the recent events in the Kerch Strait.
The Federal Space Research Program for 2006-2015 says that in order to deal with such emergencies it will be necessary to monitor 20-30 million square kilometers - the area covered by Russia and its key zones of economic interest - by 2010.
According to the program, some regions will need to be monitored at intervals of one to three hours at a resolution of 1-5 meters. By 2015, the total area to be monitored must be increased to 50-70 million square kilometers.
The financial problems that plagued Russia's space effort in the 1990s denied the country's scientists the possibility of obtaining remote sensing information from their own satellites.
Today the situation is changing.
In August 2005, Russia launched the Monitor-E - a small satellite whose image resolution is between 8 and 20 meters. Although the satellite is considered a trial project, the information it has gathered is already widely used.
Launched in June 2006, Resurs-DK1, Russia's first high-detail imaging spacecraft, with a resolution of down to 1 meter, can transmit imagery to the Earth in real time. It has now been in regular operation for more than a year since completing its flight tests.
Aside from fulfilling special missions, DK1 can monitor the ecological situation and obtain on-the-spot information about emergencies and natural disasters.
Under the program, the fleet of natural-resources satellites must include meteorological observation craft (three Meteors and one Elektra in a geostationary orbit); Earth monitoring craft (two Kanopus-V and two Resurs craft); and two dual-capable craft (radar-carrying Arkons).
Gerbert Yefremov, general director and designer at NPO Mashinostroyenia, says his company will launch a small radar-equipped spacecraft with a resolution of down to 1 meter in 2008. Called Kondor-E, it is being developed independently under the "Pragmatic Space" program.
Combined, these craft will form as impressive a fleet as any assembled during the hey-day of Soviet space exploration.
Earth observation is now second only to communications in satellite activity. However, the experience of other countries suggests that earth observation systems seldom recoup more than 10% of their development and deployment costs.
This makes it advisable to shift some of the financial burden to commercial firms interested in the use of such systems. One is Gascom, a telecommunications arm of Russian energy giant Gazprom, which developed and is operating the Yamal satellite communications and broadcasting system.
Space-based earth observation is also important for monitoring oil and gas facilities. Combined with geological surveys and production data, satellite images provide reliable information that oil and gas companies can use to organize and speed up production.
In choosing the pipeline routes, for example, information from satellites can reduce laying costs by 15-30%.
The 2006-2015 program also includes a space monitoring and mapping project called Smotr, designed to help companies explore and develop gas deposits, and subsequently produce and transport gas and condensate.
The system is being developed by the Energia Space and Rocket Corporation.
The project differs fundamentally from other earth observation programs: it contains several spacecraft with diverse equipment: two optoelectronic craft for detailed and panoramic observation and two or three radar spacecraft for all-weather monitoring.
Although its primary goal is to serve the oil and gas industry, the system will be able to provide surveying for all branches of the economy.
The system layout is governed by weather conditions in areas where the main gas facilities are located. Most regions exhibit virtually solid cloud coverage for about 70-80% of the time. Many oil and gas facilities are located north of the Arctic Circle, where observation in the visible spectrum is impossible during the long polar night.
Hence, synthetic aperture radar was chosen as the main observational instrument for the system, allowing all-weather and round-the-clock monitoring.
The radar tandem also offers the unique possibility of obtaining so-called radio-interferograms - essential for building high-precision digital models of the terrain.
Radar satellites also help to map earth subsidence in pipeline laying areas.
The active life of each spacecraft is no less than 7 to 10 years. To pick up images from the Smotr system it is planned to use not fewer than three ground stations strategically placed across Russia in such a way as to ensure continuous reception at every stage of orbit.
The system is scheduled to be deployed in 2009-2010 - or tomorrow, by the standards of the space industry. This is a tall order, especially as some of the systems - an optoelectronic monitoring capability with submeter resolution, for example - will have to be developed from scratch.
Stringent requirements for orientation and stabilization will also need an improved system of spacecraft guidance and navigation.
Yury Zaitsev is an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.