Report emphasises science benefits of ESA's Earth Observation Envelope Programme

Artist's impression of GOCE
24 October 2005

ESA's 21st Century Earth Observation Envelope Programme has received a strong endorsement from a scientific review committee tasked with assessing its benefits ahead of December's Ministerial Council.

Written by a committee of 12 leading European and world scientists, the review states that "the overall concept and structure of the Earth Observation Envelope Programme are very well regarded by the scientific community… It is likely to bring very significant science benefits, both now and in the future.

"The continuation of the programme is therefore strongly endorsed…[It] can be considered to be a very successful approach taken by the Agency, providing excellent scientific value for money."

Earth Explorers
Earth Explorers

The science and research element of ESA's Living Planet Programme, the Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP) won formal approval from Ministers in 1998 and commenced in 2000. It is intended as a science-driven rolling programme providing an increased number of launches compared to the 1990s.

EOEP's Earth Explorer series of satellites is designed to provide the European scientific community with the tools needed to better understand and monitor Earth system processes. Each Earth Explorer mission has been selected from proposals received from the scientific community, with a much-reduced development period to better meet user needs.

GlobCover comparison
GlobCover, a planetary mapping project, backed through EOEP

This month's loss of the first Earth Explorer, CryoSat, due to a launch anomaly should not impact plans to fly another four world-class science missions by the end of this decade.

EOEP also supports a Development and Exploitation component designed to facilitate the delivery of Earth Observation data to serve as the basis of operational information services.

The programme so far has been presented for subscription in slices, with the third slice (EOEP-3) due to be proposed at the ESA Ministerial Council in December 2005.

Creston Valley
Wetland mapping is also supported

In preparation for this presentation, ESA's Earth Observation Programme Board approved a plan for a review of EOEP so far, to answer the question of how well it is providing scientific value for money, with a particular emphasis on the development of the Earth Explorer missions.

The 12-member scientific review committee was made up of six members of ESA's Earth Science Advisory Committee (ESAC) plus three distinguished members each from the European and international scientific communities. The committee was chaired by Professor Michael Schaepman of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands.

Daily heat maps of the Mediterranean, produced through EOEP support

The committee started work in May 2005, beginning by reviewing digital and printed material provided by ESA, including detailed information on how mission proposals were solicited, evaluated, selected and developed. The following month members met at ESA Headquarters in Paris for presentations on the Earth Explorer missions and associated EOEP activities. An open meeting followed for discussion of first impressions and identification of any potential conflicts of interest.

A first draft feedback report was presented to the Earth Observation Programme Board at the start of July, with a second meeting of the committee held in ESTEC in August 2005 before the final report was signed and presented by members in mid-September.

The report calls the EOEP "a major evolutionary improvement over the previous approach", with the Development and Exploitation component of the programme helping to raise awareness of the scientific value of Earth Observation data and address the needs of users, with "significant scientific return" being gained from campaigns and scientific studies being carried out within this area.

A project to detect aircraft contrails from space is being sponsored

In addition, the review found that the "mechanisms of the EOEP have improved the effectiveness of data exploitation", highlighting that the approach of the EOEP has meant major improvements in developing a "complete process from data acquisition through exploitation by science users", and in properly connecting the science to the mission.

It also recounts that the user friendliness of accessing ESA Earth Observation data has been "greatly improved" through the adoption of the multi-mission Earthnet On-Line Interactive (EOLI) catalogue accessible through the Oxygen eoPortal website. A total of more than 160 000 high-data-rate Envisat products have already been distributed, with the number of requests increasing fourfold since January 2003 up to around 2000 by April 2005. At the same time the number of complaints has dropped by two thirds.

Also noted is that during the first two slices of EOEP, the number of traceable scientific publications that make use of ESA Earth Observation data has increased from around a thousand in 1992 to more than 10 000 early this century, while the number of registered ESA data users has grown to 8500 from a thousand in 1992.

Aeolus, an Earth Explorer

The inclusion of non-European scientists in the review committee helped to provide an international comparison, which resulted in the ESA programme being cited by those members as a model for the way other programmes might be conducted.

The committee also identified potential challenges for the future, including the existence of a possible gap in the long-term archiving and accessibility of Earth Observation data, as well as the prospect that the ongoing costs of operational Earth Explorer missions may reduce the number of new missions.

The report calls for continuing scientific leadership with its roots in the user community to drive the EOEP onward.

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