Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Keeping a watchful eye over earth

he sentinel programme will provide real-time data on the earth. © European Space Agency
The sentinel programme will provide real-time data on the earth. © European Space Agency

Europe’s new fleet of observation satellites will monitor the earth in real time, giving vital data on things like sea ice, pollution and crop maturity as part of the EU's earth monitoring programme that also includes sensors on the ground, at sea and in the air.

From 2014, five new satellites will begin to observe the earth, providing data that will feed into the earth observation programme Copernicus. The programme will be used for things like monitoring the state of vegetation, helping with border surveillance, and tracking climate change by recording droughts, temperatures and rainfall.

‘Copernicus presents a huge opportunity for the European Union as it will provide information on our environment. It will monitor climate change and will improve security for our citizens,’ said European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship.

The first of the new satellites, called Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2, should be launched in early 2014 and are expected to send data back to earth for between seven and 12 years. 

Sentinel-1 carries a radar that will provide imagery of land, ice and oceans in all-weather conditions, both day and night. The satellite’s orbit will take it over both poles of the earth, meaning it will be useful for monitoring sea ice, ship movements, sea pollution, and even help support humanitarian aid in crisis situations.

Copernicus presents a huge opportunity for the European Union as it will provide information on our environment. It will monitor climate change and will improve security for our citizens.’

Antonio Tajani, European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship

Disaster relief

The main instrument on board Sentinel-2 is a high-resolution imager that will primarily monitor land. It will keep an eye on land cover changes or geophysical variables like the maturity of crops, and be able to provide fast images that can be used to help provide disaster relief. Sentinels 3, 4 and 5 will monitor the atmosphere in low earth and geostationary orbits.

When all of these satellites are in operation, Copernicus will be able to help build climate change models by collecting reliable and continuous data, help monitor critical infrastructure to protect against a terrorist attack, and provide information on chemical changes in the atmosphere that drive climate change.

‘The EU will have the opportunity to monitor in real time a series of parameters that have a direct influence on the daily life of its citizens,’ said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is in charge of the technical implementation of the satellite programme.

However, the sea and land sensor system is already operational, meaning Copernicus can, for example, provide information on the salinity levels in the oceans.

This allowed the Copernicus programme to help inform the Italian Coast Guard as it righted the Costa Concordia cruise ship, which ran aground in 2012, by supplying crucial data about the ocean currents during the operation.

Creating jobs

The EU expects the Copernicus programme to create 48 000 jobs in Europe by generating business for companies making space technology and producing data that can be used by researchers and companies to plan more effectively for the future.

‘These services are expected to create global market opportunities and help to support job creation and economic growth,’ said Philippe Brunet, Director of Aerospace, Maritime, Security and Defence Industries at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry.

The EU plans to spend EUR 4.3 billion on Copernicus between 2014 and 2020, which represents just over 6 % of the total budget for its funding programme for the period, called Horizon 2020. The EU hopes that will help to generate a minimum financial benefit of at least EUR 30 billion by 2030.

More info