Everything you wanted to know about Copernicus

Following the previous CNES café about French military space, the French space agency has organized this month a Q&A about Copernicus, the European Earth observation program. The first speaker was Véronique Mariette, from the innovation & science directorate of CNES, Earth environment climate division. She is in charge of relations with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission. The second speaker was Isabelle Benézeth, from the French Environment and Infrastructure ministry, one of the main users of Copernicus data, where she is in charge of Earth observation .

A bit of history

The evening started with a bit of background on Copernicus: it was born as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) in 1998. Contrary to most European programs, it was placed under the control of the European Union, with ESA acting as the technical expert and procurement agency. In 2012, the European Commission renamed it Copernicus, a more recognizable name. The first satellite became operational in 2014.

The constellation

The Copernicus constellation currently has 6 spacecraft, which produce various kinds of data. From the user’s point of view, one of its main features is that it has a high revisit rate, a global coverage, and that since it is backed by the EU, there is a guaranteed continuity over a long period of time. Another very interesting aspect is that the data produced is freely available.


The satellites

Mrs Mariette then went on to give a quick overview of the different kinds of satellites in the constellation:

– Sentinel 1 is a C-band radar, used for polar ice and maritime pollution monitoring. It has a 6 day revisit

– Sentinel 2 has a multispectral optical imager, with 13 bands of resolutions fom 10 to 60m. It is used for agriculture and vegetation monitoring

– Sentinel 3 has a radio altimeter, a temperature sounder, and a water colour instrument. It is used for ocean monitoring

– Sentinel 4 will be an instrument dedicated to air quality monitoring and carried aboard a next-generation Meteosat satellite in geostationary orbit. It will launch in 2022.

– Sentinel 5P is a precursor mission to demonstrate a future air quality monitoring satellites

– Sentinel 6 also has a radio altimeter for ocean monitoring

Sentinel 1, 2 and 3 are in Sun-Synchronous orbits, Sentinel 6 is in a non-SSO orbit at 1340km with 66° inclination. (More info at ESA’s sentinel website).


After this short introduction, the session moved to a Q&A with the audience:

Q: What do you think of the competition from small satellite constellations, like Planet Labs?

A: We are looking at small satellites. For instance we realized that for weather prediction, it’s better to have more data points than more accurate measurements.

A from another CNES official in the audience: However small sats are good for high revisit, but not for precise measurements of complex physical phenomenon.

Q: How do you download and process the data from the constellation? And what about laser communications?

A: Laser communications through the European Data Relay Satellites (EDRS) is in routine use, and is critical for maritime surveillance, as it enables the delivery of the data to the customers in less than 30 minutes. Currently the constellations generates 12 Terabytes a day with 6 satellites, and we will have 20 satellites in 10 years. How to exploit all of this data is a challenge. For instance in maritime surveillance the users still rely a lot on manual processing, and are overwhelmed by the amount of data. Big data processing has become necessary.

Regarding data distribution, there are 4 distribution hubs: one for countries outside the EU, one for the public and scientists, on for EU countries and one for Copernicus services. The EU Commission will also set up 4 data centers called DIAS for archival and cloud processing, so that you do not need to download Terabytes to search through the archive. DIAS use will not be free however. DIAS will be run by private operators so that there is competition. In time, the number of DIAS will probably be reduced to the two most sucessful.

Q from myself: What about the security aspect of Copernicus? What users do you have and how do they get the data?

A: First, Copernicus is a civilian program under civilian control, so the security aspect is only for civil security. There are 3 security services:

– Border surveillance, with the users being the FRONTEX, the European border surveillance agency, and the Ministries of the Interior of member states. It is used to keep watch of migratory movements, and to close immigration routes.

– Maritime security, with the users being EMSA, the European Maritime security agency, and the Directorate of maritime affairs (les affaires maritimes) in France for instance. It is used for monitoring fishing in Exclusive Economic Zones. For instance, for monitoring illegal fishing of cod icefishes (la légine) in the French Kerguelen islands, in the South of the Indian ocean. It’s a pricy fish that sells for 1M€ per campaign per boat in Asia, so there is a lot of illegal fishing. The monitoring enabled to capture one fishing boat, which deterred the others from coming back, to the great pleasure of French fishermen in La Réunion.

– Helping the external action from the EU: on request of the Commission, imagery can be used to support its foreign policy actions, for instance to monitor refugee camps,or to find a good place where to set them up.

Militaries can also access Copernicus data since it is freely available, and are very interested in the high revisit frequency.

Q: What are the uses for aeronautics?

A: It is useful for weather prediction and for looking for missing planes. Also, it was useful to monitor dust coming from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in island when it erupted. CNES also sent a plane for monitoring, but the dust trashed the engines, so you can see the benefits of remote sensing.

Q: What is the budget of Copernicus?

A: Budgets are set at the EU level for 7 years, the 2014-2021 budget is 4.7 billion €.

Q: How is satellite tasking performed?

A: Only Sentinel 1 is taskable, since its radar has many different imaging modes. Tasking is not very flexible, it has to be done a lot in advance. Users are asking for improvements. For emergencies, high-resolution Copernicus “contributing missions”, such as Pléiades, Terrasar X or Cosmos-Skymed, can be tasked.

And that’s it for Copernicus. The next CNES café is about future launchers, a topic especially relevant since CNES’ launcher directorate was involved in the development of Ariane 6.

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