Copernicus: Europe’s eyes in space


EU space activities rarely make the news headlines, but those in the industry have plenty to be excited about. Much of the current buzz revolves around Copernicus, the EU’s multi-billion-euro Earth observation programme.

Earth observation (EO) accounts for a major slice of the global space economy. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 58% of the sector relies directly or indirectly on EO satellite data and signals. With this in mind, it’s little wonder that the EU space industry is excited by Copernicus – an impressively ambitious programme designed to support some of Europe’s biggest challenges, including environmental disasters, land use for agriculture and forestry, and responses to emergency situations.

Copernicus – which was jointly developed by the European Commission, the European Parliament, EU Member States and the European Space Agency – launched the first of its satellites, Sentinel-1, last year. With the launch of the Sentinal-2 in June 2015, the amount of EO data generated by the programme grew significantly, as did downstream business opportunities. When Sentinel-2B joins its older sibling in orbit next year, that mission alone will be capable of obtaining complete coverage of the Earth’s land surface every five days, creating around two petabytes of data annually. But Copernicus data is guaranteed to be free-of-charge and open access until 2034, so why do forecasts suggest significant growth in downstream revenue?

Raw results
Copernicus generates a huge amount of raw data, but transforming it into useful is a complex and highly valuable task. It is within this niche that the downstream EO data industry has evolved. Many companies work in specialised areas, combining satellite data with other inputs to create tailored products and services.

To add a little more context to the current landscape, there are currently around 50 companies evaluating data from Sentinal-2a. “Agriculture is becoming a data-driven business,” explains Heike Bach, CEO at Vista, a German company that provides a range of data products for farmers. The Vista team combines optical satellite images with information from ground sensors, satnav and sophisticated crop growth models to enable precision farming on a local scale.

The high standard of Vista’s work is not only good for their profitability and that of the farmers they serve, the services also drive environmental benefits. For example, in collaboration with partners FarmFacts and John Deere, the team developed an easy-to-use system for precise, site-specific application of organic or mineral fertilisers, thus reducing the significant damage caused by fertiliser run-off.


The sky’s the limit

By 2021, Copernicus will be running six dedicated Sentinel missions, some of which include multiple satellite launches. The huge swathes of data that will be generated means there are also data management opportunities closer to the original collection source; ESA has just extended its contract with Indra, making one of the Spanish company’s data-processing and archiving centers a key resource up to 2020. The contract also includes data management for the Sentinel-2 satellites.

This is all part of the so-called ‘third wave of space’, characterised by a move towards greater private sector involvement in space where once there was only an institutional presence. Copernicus is demonstrating just how powerful this third wave can be when built around an institutional core. In fact, research conducted during Copernicus’ development suggests the programme will contribute €30 billion to the European economy as well as creating around 50,000 jobs by 2030. Against this context, the future of Europe’s space innovation looks very bright indeed.

The Sentinel missions at a glance:

  • Sentinel-1 provides all-weather, day and night radar imaging for land and ocean services
  • Sentinel-2 provides high-resolution optical imaging for land services (e.g. imagery of vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas). It will also provide information for emergency services
  • Sentinel-3 will provide ocean and global land monitoring services
  • Sentinel-4 will provide data for atmospheric composition monitoring. It will be launched in 2021
  • Sentinel-5 Precursor is a subset of the Sentinel 5 sensor set planned for launch in 2016. Its primary purpose is to reduce the data gap between the loss of ENVISAT in 2012, and the launch of Sentinel-5 in 2021
  • Sentinel-5 will provide data for atmospheric composition monitoring
  • Sentinel-6 is designed to sustain high precision altimetry missions following the Jason-2 satellite

If you are interested in Copernicus or any of the other topics covered here, make sure you take a look at the agenda for Day 1 of the Space Innovation Congress.

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