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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
 The double life of a citizen physicist
 European science – from Nobel to Descartes
 A helping hand for fledgling firms
 What makes a man?
 The hidden face of violence
 Dialling the 112 lifeline

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Title  The planet and its mirror

The pictures transmitted immediately on 26 December by satellites passing over the devastated coasts of the Indian Ocean, were the first tool enabling us to make an urgent evaluation of the areas most affected by the tsunami. This makes space a vital instrument of intervention and prevention for the inhabitants of our common terrestrial home which is regularly tested by natural disasters. Space – and its ground stations – has become an essential tool of intervention and prevention for the inhabitants of this common home that is so often the victim of natural disasters.

Instantaneous image taken of the eastern coast of Sri Lanka immediately after the tsunami of 26 December 2004. © NASA
Instantaneous image taken of the eastern coast of Sri Lanka immediately after the tsunami of 26 December 2004.
This blue ball on which we can trace the contours of continents, huge islands and projecting peninsulas against the vast oceans all around them never fails to hold our gaze. It is this apparently unique haven in a solar system that floats in a gigantic galaxy known as the Milky Way that is, in turn, part of a continuously expanding universe, which we – 6.4 billion human beings and the whole living and physical world around us – inhabit.

Over the decades, we have admittedly grown used to the frequent views we are offered of our Planet. Yet still we contemplate them with that same sense of wonder and fascination. Who – from the Greek geographer Ptolemy to the German geophysicist Alfred Wegener, down to the intrepid 15th century explorers of the Americas – would have thought that, one day, we would be able to view the Earth from above? What an immense scientific and technological revolution Earth observation from space truly is! 

As a result, humankind today has a unique mirror, one that enables us to view the Earth’s ecosystem in its entirety.

In addition to the services it offers when disaster strikes, Earth observation also shows, clearly and unquestionably, the now obvious influence of human activities, of demographic growth and feverish consumerism, on regional and global changes to major planetary balances, including disruptions to the carbon cycle, global warming due to the greenhouse effect, deflected ocean currents, changes to the chemical composition of the air, the disappearance of species, coastal erosion, desertification and deforestation. Earth observation, which must be increased and developed, is not only necessary for diagnosing the changes at work but also for testing the validity of the still timid policies aimed at correcting them that are only now beginning to be implemented.   

It is with a view to the latter that the third Earth Observation Summit (EOS III) will be held in Brussels on 16 February 2005. Representatives from more than 50 countries and around 30 international organisations will be present, seeking to lay down the concrete lines of a new global policy. The expected launch of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) aims to establish a kind of “global public service” that will be available to any researcher or decision-maker who needs it, wherever they may be.  

Out of a desire to mark this political meeting of the highest importance, the European Commission, as host of this GEO(1) group summit, is organising an “Earth and Space Week” – from 12 to 20 February 2005 – that is aimed at bringing home to Europe’s decision-makers, as well as its citizens, the vital implications of Earth observation. The main event will be a huge exhibition open to the public presenting the remarkable progress – complete with fascinating pictures – in the knowledge acquired by the Earth sciences, particularly in Europe.(2)

(1) Group on Earth Observations.
(2) The GEO summit will be followed, on 17 and 18 February, by an international conference on present and future developments in international co-operation in Space. 

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