The Sentinel-1a satellite, which blasted off into Earth's
orbit from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana at 5.02 p.m. ET,
will be used to monitor sea ice, oil spills and land use and to
respond to emergencies such as floods and earthquakes.
The satellite, which carries a 12-metre-long (40-foot-long)
radar antenna and has two 10 meter-long solar panels, is now
orbiting the planet at 693 km (439 miles) above the earth.
The Copernicus project, for which the European Union and the
European Space Agency (ESA) have committed funding of around 8.4
billion euros ($11.5 billion) until 2020, is described by the
ESA as the most ambitious earth observation program to date.
Copernicus is designed to supply data that can help policymakers
develop environmental legislation or react to emergencies such
as natural disasters or humanitarian crises.
"The Sentinels will keep a watchful eye on our planet," Thomas
Reiter, ESA director of human spaceflight and operations and
head of the ESA's satellite control centre ESOC, said at the
launch event in the German city of Darmstadt near Frankfurt,
where ESOC is based.
The launch of the Copernicus project became especially urgent
after Europe lost contact with its Earth observation satellite
Envisat in 2012 after 10 years.
"The big step forward is that we can now cover every place on
Earth every three to six days," Volker Liebig, director of ESA's
Earth Observation program, said ahead of the launch.
"This used to take much longer with Envisat. If you want to use
images for disaster management support or to find a plane, then
you want the images to be as fresh as possible."
But he cautioned you would first need to know roughly where a
plane had crashed, which is not the case with the missing
Malaysian Airlines jet.
Chris Reynolds, director of the Irish Coast Guard in Dublin,
said authorities needed more satellite images and data delivered
as quickly as possible to catch "the bad guys", such as people
who purposely dump oil from their ships into the sea.
"At the moment, it's very difficult to find out who has the data
and to know what level of trust you can place in it," he said at
Copernicus also offers new business opportunities.
Images can be downloaded free of charge, meaning companies can
then use them to help deliver data to farmers on soil moisture
or pest infestation, help oil companies decide where to drill
new wells or make it easier for insurers to assess the risk of
costly floods and fires.
Sentinel-1a, which will operate in tandem with a second
satellite to be launched next year, Sentinel-1b, has high-tech
instruments that will allow it to record radar images of Earth's
surface, even when the skies are cloudy or dark. As part of the
Copernicus program, there will be 17 launches over the next
Copernicus is one of the EU's two flagship space programs along
with satellite-navigation initiative Galileo, which is meant to
rival the dominant U.S. Global Positioning System, or GPS,
Russia's GLONASS and China's new Beidou system.
The main suppliers for the first Sentinel are Italian-French
venture Thales Alenia Space for the satellite and Airbus Defense
and Space for the radar.
($1 = 0.7291 euros)
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan and Victoria Bryan;
editing by Mark
Heinrich and Lisa Shumaker)
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