About Earth Observation
Europe’s eyes on the World
Never before has man been able to examine our planet so closely. Landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and droughts have been the things of fear and superstition throughout history. But now, with the power of satellite technology, we are starting to understand the complexities of our planet and the reasons for the changes, both subtle and dramatic, that we are all experiencing.
Over the last 20 years, Earth observation from space has uncovered startling evidence of man's detrimental effect on the natural environment and satellites are now being recognised as a key to helping us manage and monitor resources.
International initiatives within the world’s scientific and political communities are tackling critical environmental issues such as climate change, CO2 emissions and ozone depletion. Europe is playing a leading role in this research through the work of the European Space Agency's (ESA) ongoing Earth Observation Programme.
A leading Force
From the invention of its Ariane launcher back in the early sixties, ESA has been an instrumental force in science, telecommunication, Earth observation and manned space missions.
The first significant contributions from ESA's Earth Observation Programme came in 1977, when the first of seven Meteosat meteorological satellites was launched to monitor the weather of Europe and Africa from a vantage point over the equator.
The success of this and subsequent missions led to the formation of the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat), which has since worked alongside ESA on an ongoing programme of weather monitoring and climate change studies.
Our changing world
Climate monitoring has become a key element of the Earth Observation Programme. Almost every change in our natural environment is reflected in our weather patterns. Meteorological satellites have played their part in identifying long-term trends and it is estimated that improved weather forecasting has saved industries and the public millions of Euros every year.
Meteosat images of weather patterns are an everyday feature on European television and are used by national meteorological services to provide increasingly more accurate weather forecasting. To continue this crucial work, ESA and Eumestat are now working on the Meteosat Second Generation (MSG).
The first of three MSG spacecraft was launched in the summer of 2002 and - having entered operational service as Meteosat-8 - is providing meteorologists with much improved imagery and data. A further development will come in the shape of Metop-1 which will be launched in 2005 as part of a joint European-United States polar satellite system.
The first of a series of three similar satellites developed by ESA and Eumetsat, Metop-1 will operate in unison with a similar United States spacecraft, producing high-resolution images, detailed temperature and humidity profiles of the atmosphere and temperatures of the land and ocean surfaces. Instruments on board will also monitor ozone levels in the atmosphere and wind flow over the seas.
As a polar-orbiting satellite, Metop-1 will fly at a lower altitude than its geo-stationary Meteosat and MSG counterparts and will, therefore, be able to provide different and complementary kinds of meteorological information.
Into new realms
Since the beginning of the 1990s, ESA has taken Earth observation into new realms through the work of its ERS satellites. ESA's ERS-1 spacecraft was launched into space by an Ariane 4 in 1991. ERS-2 followed in 1995.
At the time these two satellites – both of which carried highly advanced radar instruments - were the most sophisticated Earth observation spacecraft ever developed in Europe. For the first time they were able to create accurate radar images of the Earth’s surface, giving us new eyes on our world.
They have since collected a wealth of information on the Earth's land surfaces, oceans, sea ice and polar caps, and their contribution towards our understanding of world environmental issues has been invaluable.
On a global scale, the ERS programme has expanded our understanding of the interaction between the oceans and atmosphere, ocean currents and changes in Arctic and Antarctic ice, giving climatologists more confidence in predicting changes in our climate and helping us to monitor environmental pollution.
This work has led to the development of the World's most ambitious ever Earth observation satellite – Envisat. Envisat, which was launched on 1 March 2002 (CET), involved nearly 10 years work by some of Europe's most respected scientists and engineers. On board the spacecraft are 10 highly sophisticated instruments, all of which will collect crucial environmental data over a planned five-year mission period.
Envisat represents one of the Earth's most important sources of environmental information and has further enhanced ESA's position as a major authority on world environmental issues.
The new generation
The use of satellites for observing the Earth is seen as the way forward to preserve our planet. Studies on climate change or ozone depletion, for example, take years to complete, requiring massive amounts of information.
Continuity of ESA's Earth observation activities is therefore critical and already work is well underway on ESA's Living Planet Programme, the next generation of satellite missions.
This programme, which will be phased in over the coming few years, will involve the use of smaller satellites on shorter, cheaper and more focused missions. As a new approach for ESA it will encourage industry partnerships and increased dialogue with the scientific research and political communities within Europe.
Last update: 23 September 2004