Keeping a close watch on the environment

The European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA) have joined forces to create the GMES programme(1), designed to monitor the global environment in the broadest sense to ensure the socio-economic welfare and security of European citizens. Interview with Volker Liebig, Director of Earth Observation at ESRIN (ESA’s Italian centre).

In 2001, the European Union decided to launch an Earth surveillance programme called GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security). GMES is like a space jigsaw, comprising an initial series of satellites – ESA’s Sentinel missions – each of which will include a set of operational satellites each devoted to a specific type of observation.

The GMES programme provides for new Earth observation satellites, including ESA’s Sentinels. These satellites are often referred to as dual-purpose (military and civilian).The acronym GMES also includes the ‘S’ for ‘security’. What does all this mean?

Dual technology allows new-generation Earth observation satellites to be used for both civilian and military purposes. For instance, we know that a 40% share of the Italian Cosmo Sky Med radar satellites, which are also military instruments, could be used for GMES purposes – in this case, for civil protection (such as monitoring European Union borders or illegal immigration by sea).

At ESA, we have developed a product prototype for this purpose: the MARISS (MARItime Security Services) project. One of its objectives is to stem illegal immigration into Europe using satellite monitoring and identification of ships, particularly in the Mediterranean. Another is to try to identify illegal cargo loading operations at sea, arms trafficking, etc.

Doesn’t the International Charter on Space and Natural Disasters already provide the services that the GMES programme will one day render?

Security does of course include monitoring of natural disasters and setting up emergency aid. In the case of tsunamis, for instance, the satellite images broadcast as part of the International Charter make it possible to assess the scope of damage immediately following disasters, by comparing them with archive images. With GMES, this type of service will not be limited in time – that is to say, it won’t be confined to the few days following a disaster. It is a permanent monitoring service that is preventive where possible and has high added value. Again, in the case of a tsunami, GMES will also provide valuable information on the state of roads or on whether a bridge is still standing after a wave has passed. The information can also be analysed to define the optimum site for a refugee camp or to locate sources of drinking water.

With GMES, this satellite data input is supported by a wide range of downstream services, whereas the Charter provides only ad hoc data with no complementary services.

Could the GMES programme be said to have political ends?

Exactly so. In fact, GMES has a dual operational and political objective. Europe wishes to endow itself with both these capabilities. Not only is GMES a common operational system of benefit to all Europeans, it also frees Europe from dependence on non-European Union countries for space data. At the same time it unites European nations for the greatest social and economic good of all.

How much will it cost to implement GMES?

The first three Sentinel satellites and the preliminary study phases for Sentinels 4 and 5 alone will cost € 1.17 billion. ESA and the European Commission are footing the bill.

(1) Global monitoring for environment and security


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