In October 2014, as the first satellite of the European Union’s Copernicus program began returning images of Earth, European Space Agency (ESA) scientists had designed it to reach the end of its operational life within seven years. The satellite crossed that deadline this week, and it is still functional and fully expected to remain in service for several more years.
Copernicus has been the largest provider of Earth observation data in the world for some years now. The Sentinel-1A satellite, which inaugurated the mission upon its launch into orbit in April 2014, has supplied a wealth of radar imagery to aid disaster response as well as help researchers understand the Earth’s changing environment.
“It is with great pride that we see the first satellite ESA built for Copernicus pass its all-important seven-year operational life expectancy,” said ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher. “We have another seven Copernicus Sentinel satellites currently in operation, all of which are surpassing expectations. With more missions in the pipeline and an ever-growing community using the Sentinel missions’ free and open data, the approach of building a long-term reliable observing system is clearly paying off.”
Sentinel-1A works in tandem with its sister satellite. Sentinel-1B, and the pair orbit the Earth 180° apart to image the planet with a repeat frequency of six days, down to a daily coverage at high latitudes to support operational sea-ice monitoring.
When the time does come for Sentinel-1A to retire, Sentinel-1C will take its place in orbit. Likewise, Sentinel-1B will eventually be replaced by Sentinel-1D. The newer satellites will further improve performance and services with new instruments dedicated to marine applications.
“The launch of Sentinel-1A has been historical for Copernicus – the start of the successful story of the family of Sentinel satellites serving Copernicus services and a huge number of users around the world with their data,” said Mauro Facchini, Head of the Earth Observation Unit (DEFIS.C.3) at the European Commission. “The emphasis of the Copernicus programme has always been on its operational nature, going far beyond the time frame of research activities. The fact that Sentinel-1A is exceeding its design lifetime in best health underpins that both policy-makers and businesses can really rely on Copernicus data and information being provided continuously and in the long term.”
Providing an all-weather, day-and-night supply of imagery of Earth’s surface, the Sentinel missions comprising the Copernicus program help address crucial environmental challenges such as food security, rising sea levels, diminishing ice, natural disasters and the climate crisis generally.
The services and applications benefiting from the Copernicus program include those relating to Arctic sea-ice monitoring, iceberg tracking, routine sea-ice mapping, glacier-velocity monitoring, surveillance of the marine environment, including oil-spill monitoring and ship detection for maritime security as well as illegal fisheries monitoring. It is also used for monitoring ground deformation resulting from subsidence, earthquakes and volcanoes, mapping for forest, water and soil management, and mapping to support humanitarian aid and crisis situations.
“The Copernicus programme as a whole is going to be even more relevant as the climate crisis takes a tighter hold,” said Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s Acting Head of Earth Observation Programmes. “Information from satellites is indispensable in measuring progress towards climate goals set by the UN and the EC’s Green Deal.”
Since launching, Copernicus has tracked the huge A-68 iceberg that calved from Antarctica and had a near-collision with South Georgia, mapped crop types and worked with ESA’s CryoSat to map ice loss from ice sheets and diminishing sea ice as well as ice lost from the world’s glaciers.
The Sentinel-1 mission has been used to map subsidence and shifts in the ground following earthquakes, track surface wind speeds below tropical storms and hurricanes and been called upon through the Copernicus Emergency Mapping Services and the Disaster Charter to map floods at times of disaster.
Incorporating more advanced technology, ESA and the European Commission are currently developing the next generation of Sentinel satellites with the aim of attracting new users and extending Copernicus’s services for decades to come.