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How space can help to prevent another Titanic

9 Apr 2012

When the Titanic entered the iceberg infested waters 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in April 1912 a number of factors contributed towards making this the tragedy that has made the name of the cruise ship infamous.

Artist's impression of Envisat

Artist's impression of Envisat

Human folly and hubris are often blamed for escalating the disaster but a lack of communication between ships and limited knowledge about icebergs left the crew unprepared and unable to call for help. Earth observation and communication satellites have changed much of the isolation and lack of understanding that the Titanic suffered.

We now have an unprecedented understanding of our polar regions, iceberg movement and the oceans. A number of European satellites monitor the extent, thickness and movement of ice and the UK has had a key role in building these satellites and processing the data that have been gathered.

Maria Adams, Head of Earth Observation Missions and Technology at the UK Space Agency:
“We have come a long way in the development of space activities over the last 50 years, with state of the art technologies, much improved understanding of our environment and its processes, and novel space-based information services. Space has become an integral part of our lives, and most of the time we do not even realise it is a major contributor to keeping us safe.”

Over the past 100 years the technology available to ensure maritime safety has become increasingly sophisticated. In 1912 the Titanic has two lookouts in the crows nest and the binoculars were missing.

The international response to the tragedy was rapid. In 1913 the International Ice Patrol (IIP) was established and has been run ever since. Close watch is kept on the shipping lanes around the Great Banks of Newfoundland during iceberg season from February to July, including the site where the Titanic sank. The IIP combine observations from their patrol planes with satellite data about prevailing wind and ocean currents to predict the drift of icebergs in order to warn ships of potential hazards.

Monitoring ability has become cheaper and more accurate in recent years with increasing availability and accuracy of satellite data. In 2005 Polar View was set up, in part by the British Antarctic Survey, to provide monitoring and forecasting services in the Polar Regions. This includes sea ice and iceberg monitoring services, supporting ships by providing near real time detection of icebergs and information about sea ice distribution. These services rely heavily on data from Earth Observation satellites, in particular Canada’s Radarsat and ESA’s Envisat missions.

Envisat image of the breakup of B-15A iceberg off Cape Adare on 30 Oct 2005

The break-up of B-15A iceberg in progress off Cape Adare on 30 October 2005, as seen by Envisat's ASAR in Wide Swath Mode
Credit: ESA

Andrew Fleming of the British Antarctic Survey:
“The availability of frequent satellite observations has increased greatly in recent years, especially from the European Space Agency. The radar images allow us to monitor round the clock and in all weather conditions, giving very current information about where the ice is. However it is not possible to spot every bit of ice in the ocean – even small bergs pack a huge punch. So the risk remains and grows if the number of ships in ice infested waters increases.”

Both of these satellites use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology. SAR is an active satellite, bouncing microwave signals off the surface of the earth allowing it to capture images any time of the day or night, what ever the weather. This is a distinct advantage over the look outs on board ships in 1912 as well as aircraft or even optical satellites which cannot see through cloud cover. The UK led the development of the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) which is the largest instrument on board Envisat and vital to the detection of icebergs.

In the case that a modern ship did hit an iceberg, it would not experience the same communication problems that the Titanic suffered. The two radio operators onboard the Titanic were employed by the Marconi Company and were only indirectly responsible to the Captain. One of their main jobs was to relay passenger messages. This meant that some of the messages warning of the ice field were lost and many of those that did get through didn’t reach the bridge. This may have meant that the severity of the peril was underestimated.

Radio messages from the Titanic

The nearby Leyland liner Californian did send warning messages but was scolded by the Titanic operators for interrupting Titanic passenger messages:

Message from Californian to Titanic 23:00 (approx) 14 April 1912:

Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice.

Message from Titanic to Californian 23.12 (approx) 14 April 1912:

Keep out! Shut up, shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race.

When the Titanic sent out distress signals several nearby ships tried to respond but were too far away to reach her in time. Californian was thought to be only 20 miles from the Titanic during the hours that she was sinking. However, the radio operator was not on duty and the wireless had been turned off for the night. Since then all ships have been required to maintain the ability for 24 hour communications.

Communication satellites facilitate this requirement. The UK is a world leader in building and operating communications satellites. British company Inmarsat owns and operates 11 satellites offering a communications service to ships. Using satellites, ships can maintain contact regardless of the weather conditions anywhere in the world up to the extreme poles. This also gives them access to chart and weather updates, including Polar View iceberg updates.

Just like satellite navigation systems for cars on land, satellites can be used to accurately find the location of ships. The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a shoebox sized signal detector able to find the global location of ships from space. UK company, COM DEV Europe developed the instrument. Amongst other uses it aids maritime search and rescue. The Titanic radio messages showed that during the sinking the Titanic and nearby ships had to continually update each other with their latitude and longitude. With satellites the projected course of the vessel can be tracked based on last known position and other ships in the area can be identified to help. Used at ground level, AIS was only effective between ships or near shore. By putting a receiver in space the signal can cover a much wider area out on the open ocean.

The Titanic was believed to be unsinkable. Now we know that any ship is at the mercy of the ocean. With a safety network out in space supplying sea farers with data about potential dangers and supporting crews if something does go wrong, it is hoped that a disaster on the scale of the Titanic will not be allowed to happen again.


For further information please contact:
Madeleine Russell
Press Officer
UK Space Agency
Tel: +44 (0)1793 418069