Climate Data: Europe Expands its Fleet of Earth Observation Satellites

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet on the International Space Station. Photo: ESA
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet on the International Space Station. Photo: ESA

While NASA’s climate science future may be unclear, Europe is in the midst of upgrading its earth observation capabilities.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is in the process of launching a series of new satellites to intensify the continent’s environmental monitoring capacity.

Incoming US president Donald Trump has indicated he may cut America’s earth observation programmes, but the European Union says its own satellites are a real game changer.

At Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, the EU’s latest satellite is being prepared for liftoff. An Italian Vega rocket is scheduled to put the device into orbit on 6 March.

Unprecedented Views

The Sentinel satellite will join the four European earth observation satellites already brought into orbit following consecutive launches since 2014. The full Sentinel constellation, operated by the European Commission, is expected to be completed in 2021 and will provide a wealth of climate change data.

The satellite to be launched in March promises unprecedented views of Earth. ESA says it will expand on the popular French Spot and American Landsat satellite projects, originally launched in the seventies and eighties of the previous century.

Named Sentinel-2b, the car-sized satellite will add a combination of high resolution and new spectral capabilities to Europe’s earth observation fleet and will provide crucial data on the state of the world’s vegetation and forests, as well as information about pollution in lakes and oceans.

The satellite will also monitor glaciers, sea ice and snow cover.

Disaster Relief

Together with its identical twin Sentinel-2a, launched in 2015, the new satellite will cover the entire world every five days. The two satellites have been designed with the agricultural and forestry sectors in mind as key data users.

But aside from monitoring plant growth and forest health, the satellite’s images of floods, volcano eruptions, forest fires and landslides are expected to help humanitarian relief efforts.

More Data Than Facebook

The Sentinel satellites send their land, ocean and atmospheric data and imagery to the European Union’s Copernicus earth observation programme.

More Sentinel data is downloaded every day than is uploaded to Facebook in the form of photos, according to ESA.

Finalised in the Netherlands at the European Space Research and Technology Centre, the Sentinel-2b satellite is the product of collaboration across the continent.

“It’s a European satellite, built by more than 60 contractors from 15 countries,” Michael Menking from Airbus, the primary contractor leading the industrial consortium, told ESA. Almost half of the companies involved are small- or medium-sized.

Free And Open Data Policy

The Sentinel programme consists of six missions of two satellites each. The weather-monitoring Sentinel-1 mission has been fully operational since last year and the first of two Sentinel-3 climate and ocean monitoring satellites was also put into orbit in 2016.

Additional satellite launches over the next five years will focus on providing more atmospheric and sea-level monitoring data to the Copernicus programme.

The European Union says it wants to make it easier for innovative companies and start-ups to access space data. Last year, it was announced that Copernicus is teaming up with Climate-KIC, the European Union’s climate innovation initiative, to accelerate the use of its data in creating climate change solutions.

“The free and open data policy is one of the key achievements of Copernicus, and is also the key to its success,” Andras Roboz of the European Commission’s Copernicus unit told ESA.

Interested in the business opportunities of climate data? Find out about Climate-KIC’s programmes for students and start-ups.

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