Earth Observation is an inherently multipurpose tool. Just as a single picture is said to be worth a thousand words, so many different types of information can be extracted from a single satellite image or data sample and put to a large number of diverse uses.
This means there is no typical Earth Observation user: it might be anyone who requires detailed characterisation of any given segment of our planet, across a wide variety of scales from a single city block to a country, region, or continent, right up to coverage of the entire globe.
Acquiring the most reliable, detailed and up-to-date information available is a basic requirement of good business and effective government. Earth Observation provides a whole new dimension of information, and for this reason is already employed by many thousands of users worldwide.
ESA works to further increase Earth Observation take-up by encouraging development of new applications and services centred on user needs.
Turning science into services
New applications usually emerge from scientific research, which is classed as Category 1 use by ESA. Accredited Category 1 users – known as Principal Investigators – receive Earth Observation products at cost price. For more information on this type of use, read 'How to get Earth Observation data' and consult ESA's Earth Observation Principal Investigator Portal.
Converting basic research and development into an operational service requires the fostering of partnership between research institutions, service companies and user organisations.
ESA's Data User Element programme addresses institutional users tasked with collecting specific geographic or environmental data.
The Data User Element aims to raise such institutions' awareness of the applicability of Earth Observation to their day-to-day operations, and develop demonstration products tailored to increase their effectiveness. The intention is then to turn these products into sustainable services provided by public or private entities.
Complementing Data User Element objectives is ESA's Earth Observation Market Development programme. This provides a supportive framework within which to organise end-to-end service chains capable of leveraging scientific Earth Observation data into commercial tools supplied by self-supporting businesses.
ESA extended its scientific support to researchers and industry in 2008 with the launch of the Support to Science Element (STSE), a new element of the Earth Observation Envelope Programme.
STSE provides scientific support to both future and on-going missions by taking a proactive role in the formulation of new mission concepts and providing multi-mission support to science.
GMES: Improved Intelligence Gathering
ESA is also supporting a suite of operational Earth Observation-based services. These services have been established under the umbrella of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative.
A joint endeavour by ESA and the European Commission, GMES is meant to address perceived deficiencies in European information gathering. It works to bring together information providers and users and establish an independent capacity to gather timely, accurate global data to help carry out European environment and security policies.
As well as improving and co-ordinating the function of ground-based monitoring resources, making GMES happen also means optimising use of existing and future Earth Observation systems.
The set of Earth Observation-based services currently backed by ESA represent a first step in GMES, and are collectively known as the GMES Services Element.
Data yielded from GSE supports the work of a range of scientists, policy makers and implementers within government agencies, non-governmental organisations and key international scientific bodies. The needs of GSE users are also influencing the design of future European satellite systems.
If you have an interest in the scope of future ESA activities including Earth Observation, consult the General Studies Programme (GSP), which functions as an Agency 'think tank', with technical experts assessing new technologies, missions and programmes for incorporation within ESA strategy.
For European academics working on advanced technology a mechanism called Ariadna provides an enhanced link with the GSP. Run by the Agency's Advanced Concepts Team, Ariadna is devoted to short, inexpensive studies involving research into radical space technologies, with regular announcements of opportunity posted.