Sunday 23. January 2022
#172 - June 2014


The new ‘Copernicus’ Earth observation programme


Since the beginning of April, Sentinel-1A, the first of a series of Copernicus satellites, has been orbiting in space and making long-range environmental monitoring possible. It is part of ‘Copernicus’, the new European Flagship Programme.

An estimated 600 million people worldwide watched the live broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing on 21 July 1969 (UTC) on television. Today, manned space flight, space systems and space-based technologies such as telecommunications, television and weather forecasting are part of our everyday life. So the launch of a new satellite – like the new ESA satellite Sentinel-1A from the European Spaceport in Kourou (French Guiana) on the night of 4 April – is not something that attracts much public attention.


EUR 4.3 billion programme

Following trialogue agreement last December, the Regulation establishing the satellite-based Earth observation programme Copernicus was adopted by the European Parliament on 12 March and by the Council of the European Union on 24 March (see Other Items: Space Policy). This continues the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programme (GMES) within the multiannual financial framework for 2014–2020 under a new name.


As Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer born in Torun in Poland, made possible a better understanding of the world in the 16th century, the programme named after him aims to open up the way to deeper insights about our changing planet. The findings, in turn, will form the basis for concrete measures to improve the quality of life of citizens. The Copernicus programme has a budget of almost EUR 4.3 billion. There was reportedly disagreement in the Council up until the last moment concerning the division of powers between the Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) on the one hand and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) on the other in the awarding of contracts.


Providing information about the environment

Copernicus is intended to give Europe continuous, independent and reliable access to Earth observation data and information. The programme consists of the following components: the Services component, to ensure the provision of information in the areas of atmosphere monitoring, marine environment monitoring, land monitoring, climate change, natural disasters and crisis management and security. The In Situ component brings together all the monitoring systems which are not operated in space. Here, the programme envisages ensuring coordinated access to observation data from airborne, seaborne and ground-based facilities. Finally, the programme has a Space component that ensures the permanent availability of satellite-based observation data.


In this component, the two Sentinel-1 satellites (A and B) are the first of a total of six missions from the “Sentinel” satellite group. The recent successful launch of the Sentinel-1A satellite will now enable long-range environmental monitoring. It is pre-programmed to deliver high-resolution images of landmasses, coastal zones and shipping routes on the world’s oceans. In this way, it monitors, for example, sea ice, the Arctic environment and the marine environment, provides precise mapping of land (forests, water, soil and sustainable agriculture), and supports disaster management.


Users of the Copernicus programme

Core users of the Copernicus programme are the organs and bodies of the EU as well as European, national, regional and local authorities responsible for the definition, implementation, enforcement or monitoring of a public service or policy (such as atmosphere monitoring, marine monitoring, land monitoring, climate change and disaster control). Additionally, the Copernicus programme will be used in research, i.e. by universities and other research and educational institutions, by charities, non-governmental organisations, international organisations and, not least, by commercial and private users.


In 2012, the Network of European Regions Using Space Technologies (NEREUS), together with the ESA, published a report entitled The Growing Use of GMES Across Europe’s Regions”. In this publication, regional end-users, research institutes and industry suppliers describe the innovation potential and the expected economic and social benefits.


In the Spanish region of Andalusia, for example, the demarcation and characterisation of seagrass beds has been improved with the use of hyperspectral remote sensing data. Seagrass meadows constitute a fundamental coastal ecosystem. Using a combination of images from the Sentinel-2 and 3 satellites in the Copernicus programme, it is hoped that a better environmental analysis of the underwater coastal regions can be obtained. The condition of seagrass beds represents a reference point.


Looking at companies in the EU, it is hoped that Copernicus will help them to create new jobs and open up new business opportunities through the services for creation and dissemination of environmental data as well as the space industry itself. Thus, the Commission considers that many different industries, such as the transport sector, the insurance industry and even agriculture will be (indirect) beneficiaries of accurate and reliable Earth observation data.


Political and legal classification

The Copernicus programme is embedded in the European space policy. The Treaty of Lisbon gave the European Union competence in this policy field for the first time. However, this is an area of “shared competences” (Article 4(3) TFEU). This means that EU action in this field does not prevent the Member States from taking action.


The possible EU action is specified in Article 189 TFEU. It gives the EU the mandate to draw up a European space policy by promoting joint initiatives, supporting research and technological development and coordinating the efforts needed for the exploration and exploitation of space. The object is to promote scientific and technical progress, industrial competitiveness and the implementation of its policies. In 2011, The Commission had already presented its plans in the communication “Towards a space strategy for the European Union that benefits its citizens.


In addition to the priority actions in the field of satellite navigation (see the Galileo and EGNOS programmes) and the Copernicus programme in the service of the environment and combating climate change, aerospace is one of the industries seen as a driver of growth and innovation. It is expected to create highly-skilled jobs and market opportunities for innovative products and services that go far beyond the aerospace sector. In this way, the space sector should directly contribute to achieving the Europe 2020 strategy. The Council of the European Union and the European Parliament basically welcomed the communication – albeit with some modifications.


And finally:

The EU hopes that its prestigious new Copernicus programme will provide a powerful and sustainable Earth observation infrastructure for Europe. Based on studies, the Commission also anticipates a financial benefit of approximately EUR 30 billion and 50,000 new jobs by 2030. Apart from this purely economic perspective, the programme will also represent an unquantifiable contribution to our common responsibility for the preservation of our planet.



Anna Echterhoff



Translated from the original text in German

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