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Copernicus Will Be Europe's All-Seeing Satellite Constellation

Copernicus Will Be Europe's All-Seeing Satellite Constellation

The launch of the European Space Agency’s radar satellite Sentinel-1A, and with it the lift-off of its ambitious Copernicus programme, which has one broad mission: observe the Earth. It’s essentially a comprehensive, always-on fitness monitor for the planet.
Sentinel-1A is just the first of Copernicus’ many eyes in the sky, which will work together to feed back huge amounts of data on everything from land movement to ocean patterns, pollution to ice coverage. It’s an ambitious project that will monitor Earth more intently than any other, and aim to give decision-makers across Europe useful information to act on, both at the EU level and on a regional basis. And for any data junkies out there, a new open policy means the data will be easier than ever to get your hands and calculators on.
Ahead of the launch, which will see Sentinel-1A blast off from French Guiana in a Soyuz at around 11pm tomorrow by local time, I spoke to Josef Aschbacher, the head of the ESA’s Earth Observation Programme Planning & Coordination Service.
How the Sentinel-1 satellite should look in orbit. Image: ESA

He explained the scope of the Copernicus project, which will see the launch of six families of satellites, but will also use data from existing satellites and measurements taken from Earth. “It really means to combine satellite observations with measurements on the ground, together with model data or information that comes from model outputs, and create an information service on an operational basis that will be used by decision-makers across Europe,” he summarised
According to the ESA, this coordinated data collection will “provide accurate, timely and easily accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure civil security.” 
To give just one application, Aschbacher gave the example of oil spills around the European coasts, caused by pollution or traffic. “What we’re doing is using satellites that are observing the area regularly, and once pollution is discovered then the coastguards will be informed,” he said. It’s a way of monitoring the environment to check up on any issues—and also of making sure that European Union directives are followed by individual member states.
He later highlighted another use that illustrates just how omniscient the satellites will be. Using interferometry, an instrument on the satellite 700km above the ground could measure a change in just millimetres on the Earth’s surface. “If, for example, a house will sink in because of some motion in the surroundings by one or two millimetres, this can be detected by satellites from space,” he said. If that sounds like an unlikely scenario, he pointed out that during the recent construction of the Jubilee underground line in London, satellites picked out that houses were sinking in where the ground had been excavated when they’d moved only millimetres. The same technique could also be used for monitoring life-saving measures like dams, and life-threatening activity like landslides.
With a series of satellite launches starting tomorrow and scheduled to continue until at least 2014, Copernicus is a huge operation. I asked Aschbacher if there wasn’t already enough Earth-monitoring satellites—by NASA, for instance—and why Europe needed its own. He responded that, while countries like the US, Japan, and India had bits and pieces similar to some of Copernicus’ components, its overall scope was unmatched. “There’s nothing comparable in terms of complexity, number of satellite missions, and the operational setup we have, so it really is the most ambitious, most comprehensive Earth observation system worldwide,” he said, adding, “It’s not a copy of something American like we sometimes do.”
He compared the Copernicus programme to existing methods in meteorology, where satellite data is combined with measurements like humidity, temperature, air pressure, and so on, to give a full picture of the forecast. Copernicus will take a similar all-encompassing approach “for disaster management, for agricultural monitoring, for oil spill monitoring, for ice monitoring, for Arctic research, for climate research, for land motion measurements, and so on and so forth.”
Sentinel-1A, the satellite that’s launching tomorrow, will be joined by its mission buddy Sentinel-1B in about 18 months, and is responsible for radar. “The radar satellites have the huge advantage of looking through clouds and taking images in day and in night, so it’s really independent of weather and illumination,” said Aschbacher. Sentinels 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 will eventually make up the full constellation, and all bring different imaging tech to observe the land, oceans, and atmosphere.
That means a huge amount of information, and institutions across different countries will be crunching the data to make useful products. The project’s open data policy means that anyone, from government institutions to private companies, research organisations, and the public, will be able to get a look-in and figure out new ways to use the data. That comes with the caveat that the huge volume of data requires a certain amount of technical capability, but Aschbacher said he considered the policy a “quantum leap forward.”
The Soyuz getting into position for the launch. Image: ESA

Before that can happen, the satellite has to launch, and there’ll no doubt be a few crossed fingers as the Soyuz passes through the most critical moments right after lift-off tomorrow night. The satellite will separate from the launcher after about 30 minutes, and then comes the unfolding of the solar panel and the delicate radar antenna. “It’s a very delicate process because quite a few things could go wrong,” said Aschbacher. When they’re unfolded, the satellite will be about ten metres in length and the instruments will start to switch on.
It’ll then take a few months to calibrate the instruments and run tests to check everything’s working before the data is distributed via the open data policy. In turn, Aschbacher hopes that will lead to even more applications of the programme. “I think this will be a breakthrough in the use of satellite data for everyday life,” he said.
TOPICS: satellitesCopernicusSentinelSentinel-1Aspaceesamachines


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