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Space Technology in Geological Exploration

May 26, 17:04 UTC+3
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As much as land surveys from space can help optimise the mineral exploration processes, they still require significant investment. Russia has an enormous potential to apply space technologies in geological exploration, especially in oil and gas.

Space technologies made their way to the geological exploration industry in the form of remote sensing techniques.

Remote sensing provides access to satellite data that can be registered, processed, and archived. Exploration leverages structural analysis of surveyed surfaces to assess deep soil deposits, spectral analysis of minerals, prediction of mineral deposits, reserve estimates, mapping, update and analysis of geological anomalies and changes, monitoring of exogenous geological processes, etc.

The use of these techniques has a considerable economic potential. Key benefits include:

  • remote sensing bringing mineral prospecting costs substantially down by reducing financial and time inputs associated with on-site exploration staff/equipment deployment;
  • exploration quality elevated to a brand new level;
  • quick data sourcing (1–2 days to several weeks);
  • higher accuracy (satellite images provide pictures of any given terrain at a particular point in time);
  • a significantly larger scope (remote sensing provides imagery of bigger terrains with a high degree of accuracy, making it possible to analyse hard-to-access regions and sites, localise the prospecting and survey several sites at a time);
  • no link to state and other borders, hence no need for special permits;
  • more detailed information about potential seismological changes in the seismically active areas; and
  • a trend towards cheaper services (microsatellites and other projects aiming to bring costs down).

However, there are certain drawbacks, too:

  • high cost of innovative solutions requiring substantial initial investment;
  • efficiency in the ongoing period hard to assess (deferred economic impact);
  • heavy reliance on government financing, including defence budgets (classified information);
  • issues related to psychological perception of innovations in geological exploration and suspicions about new methods;
  • discrediting of remote sensing by poorly skilled staff, shortage of experienced professionals; and
  • no mass consumer for the services (immature market).

The remote sensing market in Russia is still immature in terms of mass consumption: the country is lagging behind the global leaders, but is doing its best to stay abreast of the market trends.

  • Remote sensing services for geological exploration can be provided by any satellite imagery company. The technique has become most wide-spread in the US (in a close link with the NASA), with GeoEye and DigitalGlobe being America's major players. The most popular remote sensing systems include Landsat 7, Landsat 8, Terra/Aster, and WorldView-3.
  • In Russia, development of remote sensing systems is regulated by the Government. The key player is the State Space Corporation ROSCOSMOS, while the leading remote sensing developer is Russian Space Systems.

The most promising spheres of remote sensing application in Russia include the following:

  • Oil and gas industry. Under the Federal Space Programme for 2016–2025, Gazprom is mulling the launch of seven satellites (Smotr System) using non-budget financing (with investors expected to provide around RUB 93.5 million). The satellites may be launched as soon as in 2018–2019.
  • With its plentiful mineral resources, the Arctic Region is becoming increasingly attractive for exploration (including geological work), which would involve analysis of the ice cap and its changes, monitoring of natural resources, and mineral prospecting.

In 2016, budget funds allocated for geological exploration in Russia stood at RUB 35 billion, while the figure slated for 2017 is approximately RUB 30 billion. The investments from subsoil users in 2016 amounted to RUB 295 billion. In 2017, they are expected to rise to RUB 339–354 billion. 

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