Founded 20 years ago in Baveno (Italy), the Copernicus program was created to respond to the need for autonomous and independent geospatial information services, specifically on environmental and safety issues. It was initially a project with a few thousand users, but thanks to technological progress, it has become the largest provider of Earth observation data, with almost 275,000 registered users in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel data portal.
Led by the European Union (EU) and with the ESA as its main partner, Copernicus is the “most ambitious” Earth observation and monitoring program to date, and the world leader in terms of the volume of data provided, as acknowledged by María Pilar Milagro-Pérez, technical expert from the ESA Copernicus Space Office.
Its results are relevant as they facilitate countries’ adaptation to global phenomena such as climate change, soil management, atmospheric pollution and the state of the seas through the adoption of appropriate local, regional and European policies. “It makes a vast world of information and knowledge about our planet available to citizens, public authorities, policy makers, scientists, entrepreneurs and companies in a complete, open and free way,” sums up Milagro-Pérez.
In order to understand how the Copernicus program works, Milagro-Pérez explains to us its structure, which is divided into three components:
– Space component. This ensures sustainable space observation for services and consists of dedicated satellite missions such as the Sentinel missions. These missions transport the most advanced Earth observation technologies (such as radar or multispectral instruments) in order to monitor any changes in the terrain, oceans or atmosphere. The program’s space component also builds on existing infrastructures known as “collaborative missions,” with more than 30 satellites providing complementary data.
In addition, there is an Earth-based component that allows the data collected to be distributed to the user community. Once obtained by each satellite’s sensors, the data is sent through ground receiving stations, including the Maspalomas station on the island of Gran Canaria, which is part of the INTA (National Institute of Aerospace Technology). At this and other stations, data is processed and then disseminated and archived, if it has to be distributed in real time to users. Otherwise they are sent directly to specific centers throughout Europe, where they are processed and disseminated. A fast Internet network distributes data to open-access platforms.
– Services component. It guarantees the provision of information for different areas of application: monitoring of the atmosphere and the marine and land environments, climate change, management of emergency situations and security. These services transform satellite and in situ data into value-added information in these areas through processing and analysis, integration with other sources and validation of results.
– In situ component. This backs up observations by using sensors placed on riverbanks, floating in the ocean and installed in weather balloons, boats, etc. In situ measurements are used to calibrate, verify and supplement the information provided by satellites, which makes them essential to providing data that are reliable and consistent over time.
This open, global data policy promotes the creation of numerous industrial advances, in sectors as diverse as aerospace, technology, energy and agriculture
EU and ESA coordination
The European Commission (EC) is responsible for developing the policy vision and coordinating the program. For the operational implementation and management of security services, the EC relies on European organizations and agencies with the appropriate expertise, such as the Joint Research Center (JRC) for the coordination of land and emergency services, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) for climate change and atmospheric monitoring and Mercator Océan for marine services.
Management of the space component, including the construction and launch of some satellites, is the responsibility of ESA, which also acts as the architect of the satellite systems and ensures their technical coordination. It is also responsible for the coordination of operations, together with the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).
In short, this is a “genuinely European collaborative effort,” points out Milagro-Pérez, given that EU and ESA member states contribute to the program in many ways: by developing satellites under the management and supervision of ESA (such as the PAZ satellite, the first Spanish synthetic-aperture radar satellite, built by Airbus and launched in 2018), the provision of data from national space infrastructures and the supply of in-situ data.
Economic support for the Copernicus project also depends on the EU and ESA, which are responsible for the long-term financial commitment. Almost 8 billion euro has been invested so far in the program and additional investment is expected in the coming years in order to complete it and respond to new environmental requirements and policies.
Member states also participate, under the ESA’s coordination, by funding and developing “collaborative ground segments,” which have their own receiving stations, data processing and archiving centers, as well as country-specific applications, etc. This allows them to have direct access to Sentinel data.
Incentive for industrial development
As Milagro-Pérez points out, Copernicus’ main objectives are of an eminently social nature: to better manage the consumption and use of the Earth’s natural resources and protect the environment; to understand the causes and consequences of climate change and prepare adequate mitigation and adaptation measures; to respond effectively to possible disasters and humanitarian crises; to guarantee the security and quality of life of citizens.
But this open, global data policy also promotes the creation of many industrial breakthroughs. This is why the information provided is used by many sectors. “By providing the vast majority of data, analyses, forecasts and maps free of charge, Copernicus contributes to the development of innovative applications and services,” acknowledges the expert. In fact, one of its main contributions is helping to maintain the excellence of European space research and the aerospace industry, as well as participating in the continuous development of Europe’s industrial and scientific capabilities.
In the energy sector, the monitoring and measurement of solar radiation by the Copernicus atmospheric monitoring service allows companies to decide where to install wind farms or solar plants and even calculate the amount of solar energy that can be produced by the roof of certain installations.
Urban planning, archeology and maritime navigation are some other industries that benefit from the information obtained to develop their products and services. The technology has developed specific products of great use to the agricultural sector, such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as a wide range of environmental and safety applications with a great impact on business, such as emergency response, oil spill detection, maritime surveillance and monitoring territorial expansion.
Although the initiative began two decades ago, it wasn’t until 2014 that the first dedicated satellite, the Sentinel-1, was launched (two years prior, the land surveillance service began operating, the first in the program that is gradually being followed by the other services). Since then, six more Sentinel satellites have been launched and another eight are expected to take off in the next few years, along with five instruments that will fly on EUMETSAT satellites. In addition, Copernicus’ list of collaborating satellite missions is growing every year.
As for the future, according to Milagro-Pérez, in recent years there have been requests from private, business and public users to improve the monitoring of our planet and adapt to new needs. Therefore, new objectives for space missions have been identified for the near future, such as the estimation of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, high-resolution thermal observations of the Earth’s surface, monitoring of ice shelves and sea ice in polar regions, hyperspectral sensors for land and L-band synthetic aperture-radar observations.
There are numerous industrial opportunities for the project, to the extent that the ESA scientist refers to recent studies carried out by the EC which show that Copernicus, from 2020 onwards, will generate 1 billion euros of revenue for the space industry alone and create 4,000 jobs each year. From a social point of view, the benefits are also significant: the project will yield between 67 and 131 billion euros (which is 10 to 20 times the cost of the program) to benefit European society between 2017 and 2035.
This data is a testament to the fact that, thanks to its policy of free information, the program has encouraged the creation of new business models based on the services and data provided, stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
The Copernicus system
María Pilar Milagro-Pérez has a degree in Physics from the University of Zaragoza and a Ph. D. in Plasma Physics from Tor Vergata University in Rome.
She has more than 20 years of work experience in the field of satellite remote sensing. From 1999 to 2007 she worked on applications of the radar altimeter sensor on board Envisat, the ESA’s environmental satellite, verifying algorithms and evaluating the products coming from the instrument.
Since 2008, she has been working at the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Space Office in Frascati (Italy). She is responsible for coordinating the technical aspects of the space component of the project, providing support in the technical and programmatic analysis of the state of the space component and its future evolution.