The European Copernicus program: the space Sentinels

OHB Redaktionsteam
Published on
by OHB Redaktionsteam, OHB SE

“What people are doing today,” the renowned climate researcher Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Research recently warned, “at this pace on an overpopulated, overused planet is nothing less than collective attempted suicide.” And he added a dramatic warning: “This makes it all the more important to defend the two-degrees limit. If we give it up, the Holocene with its mild temperatures may one day be the distance past and we may slip into a self-reinforcing greenhouse effect with warming of six or eight degrees.” The two-degree limit is the most important resolution passed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, under which the governments of 197 countries agreed to limit the increase in global warming to a maximum of two degrees.

To monitor the steps needed to reach this goal, we require suitable measurement and observation systems. Systems such as Copernicus. This is the name of the European Union’s earth observation program, which comprises six families of satellites known as “Sentinels”. They measure our planet’s condition on the surface, in the water and in the air. Together, they collect data allowing us to observe the condition of and changes in the climate, vegetation, soils and the seas. The launch of Sentinel-1A in 2014 marked the commencement of the Copernicus mission. By 2030, around 20 satellites will be monitoring the condition of the earth.

Step by step towards the next-generation satellite

The EU is currently preparing the next generation of the Sentinel family known as “Sentinel Expansion”. And OHB wants to play a leading role. The ESA has commissioned the Bremen-based space group with a total of five studies on individual missions within the Copernicus program. OHB is principal contractor for four of the studies and Andreas Lindenthal, a member of OHB System AG’s Management Board, sees a good chance of the Company ultimately being awarded one or more contracts for the construction of a system. The study phase will be completed in mid-2019. This will be followed by preliminary requests for proposals at the end of 2019, with the first new-generation Sentinels to be launched in the mid-2020s.

Earth observation now enjoys the same status as weather observation and navigation

Andreas Lindenthal, member of OHB System AG’s Management Board

Lindenthal is committed to meeting the challenge: “Earth observation now enjoys the same status as weather observation and navigation,” he says. “OHB already has a great deal of experience in both areas through the construction of the satellites for the Galileo navigation system and the third-generation MTG weather satellites.”

OHB Nucleus satellite platform

In addition, the Company has specifically developed a versatile platform known as “Nucleus” for the Copernicus mission. Lindenthal is convinced that a standardized platform will give the Company a decisive competitive edge. “At the same time, we will be able to draw on the skills and assistance of our subsidiaries in Sweden and Italy,” he says.

A further factor which should not be ignored is that since autumn 2017 Germany has been the first European country with a national Copernicus strategy. In this respect, OHB can benefit from the fact that it is a German space company. The main aim of the German Copernicus strategy is to further improve the diverse possibilities for using the Copernicus services and particularly also to create further high-tech jobs, promote startups and offer even better public services (environmental protection, agriculture, security).

Copernicus: the earth firmly in its sights

According to Lindenthal, the technological challenge stems from the fact that Copernicus is a fully operational system designed for constant daily use. “It continuously produces, transmits and evaluates data,” Lindenthal explains. “Consequently, the system must work perfectly and reliably over weeks, months and years.” This is because the overarching goals of Copernicus are political as the purpose of the system is to provide evidence of the climate protection efforts being made by the Europeans in particular. In other words, Copernicus also acts as a mirror which is placed in front of the governments of the world to save the earth. On the other hand, the enormous volume of data may of course also help to reverse poor decisions in good time.

For this reason, Andreas Lindenthal not least of all also sees the Copernicus program as proof of the benefits provided by space technology. “Satellite technology is making a direct contribution to tracking and monitoring the condition of the earth at all times in very many different areas as a basis for improving it. This is in the interests of the entire population of Europe and the whole world,” he adds. Basically, the system is like a Swiss Army knife. “There are an incredible number of different tools in this system,” Lindenthal explains, “giving us enormous potential for different applications.”

The main potential comes from the fact that Copernicus links the satellite-based earth observation instrument with data sources on the ground, in the water and in the air (e.g. aircraft). The result is six different Copernicus services that can help to analyze the condition of the earth: monitoring of the land, the marine environment and the atmosphere, support for catastrophe and crisis management, monitoring of climate change and security.