The European Space Agency (Esa) has launched its new Earth-observation Sentinel-1A satellite marking the start of the Copernicus programme, which will provide Europe with unprecedented access to environmental data.
The 2.3 tonne spacecraft, having lifted off aboard a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 9pm GMT on Thursday, can map flood events, observe oil slicks in the oceans, detect ice distribution in the sea and measure ground movements with a precision of one millimetre.
The key device aboard Sentinel-1A, the first half of a foreseen two-satellite constellation, is a synthetic aperture radar instrument capable of capturing images of the Earth’s surface in all weather conditions 24 hours a day.
The satellite, circling around the Earth in Sun-synchronous orbit, will cover Europe, Canada and the polar regions, transmitting data in near real time.
“The launch of the first Sentinel-1 satellite marks a change in philosophy of our Earth observation programmes,” said Volker Liebig, Esa’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes. “In meteorology, satellites have been providing reliable data for weather forecasts for over 35 years. With the Copernicus programme, we will now have a similar information source for environmental services as well as for applications in the security and disaster management domain.”
Compared with its predecessor – Esa’s Envisat satellite that stopped working in 2012, Sentinel-1A will have a much faster repeat cycle, meaning the interval between it passing over the same point on Earth will be considerably shorter. While it took Envisat 35 days to revisit a place, Sentinel-1A will do it in just 12 days. Once its sister spacecraft Sentinel-1B is in orbit, which is expected to happen by 2015, the cycle will be reduced to six days.
The improved features will enable new application opportunities such as documenting oil spills in the oceans or detecting ground movements such as those caused by earthquakes or as a result of mining.
In addition to transmitting data to a number of ground stations around the world for rapid dissemination, Sentinel-1 is also equipped with a laser terminal to transmit data via European Data Relay System satellites in geostationary orbit for continual data delivery.
“Sentinel-1A opens a new page in the implementation of Copernicus, the second EU flagship space initiative, after the Galileo positioning system,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of Esa.
“The Copernicus programme will provide European citizens with the most ambitious space-based services in the world for environmental and security applications.
As part of the Copernicus programme, the Sentinel mission will be complemented by additional five families of dedicated missions that will form the core of Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring network.
Sentinel 1 will first go through an early orbit phase with controllers adjusting its orbit and calibrating all its instruments before commencing the operations in about three months.
Data from the Sentinel satellites will be distributed free of charge to interested parties among private and public service providers.