RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 44 - February 2005
  EARTH AND SPACE  -  Planting the seeds for future Earth observation

Developed in the framework of a partnership between the Commission’s Joint Research Centre and a number of European space players,(1) the Vegetation instruments on board the SPOT-4 and SPOT-5 French observation satellites achieve the formidable feat of producing a global scan of the Earth’s vegetation everyday. The main advantages of this twin space tool are the accessibility and continuity of the data provided on developing countries, especially for Africa.

Spot-Vegetation images: the identification of forest fires in Canada and observation of smoke emitted by the eruption of Mount Etna in October 2002 © Cnes
Spot-Vegetation images: the identification of forest fires in Canada and observation of smoke emitted by the eruption of Mount Etna in October 2002   © Cnes
Spot-Vegetation images: the identification of forest fires in Canada and observation of smoke emitted by the eruption of Mount Etna in October 2002
© Cnes
Vegetation-1 (on SPOT-4) and Vegetation-2 (on SPOT-5) have been operational since 1 March 1999 and 1 March 2003 respectively. Virtually identical, with a mass of 152 kg, these two remote sensing instruments follow the same orbit around the globe at an altitude of 830 km. Their round-the-clock ‘snapshots’ of the Earth’s vegetation taken at 23-minute intervals provide continuous monitoring in four spectral bands: blue, red, near infrared and medium infrared. The field of vision on the ground is 2 250 km with a constant resolution of 1 150 m. The data they generate are captured by the ground station in Kiruna, Sweden, and then transmitted to the Vegetation Image Processing Centre (CTIV) at the Vlaamse Instelling voor Technologisch Onderzoek (Vito), in Mol (BE), where they are processed and archived.

Their applications cover a vast field, including land use, the study of changes to the biosphere, interactivity between climate and vegetation, management of the environment, evaluation of forest fires and slash and burn areas, the monitoring of water resources, surveillance of flood risk, and the evaluation of damage to vegetation cover. 

Free international downloads
From the very beginning, the Vegetation data gave rise to a number of applications in Europe(2) and the number of users is increasing constantly. Since January 2002, a new distribution policy has authorised free access to observations more than three months old. There are currently about 70 registered customers in around 30 countries, but more than 4 000 registered users are authorised to download the images free of charge. This means that African and Latin American countries are able to familiarise themselves with the interpretation of spatial imagery and develop applications that are adapted to their specific needs.

Constantly taking the pulse of the Earth’s vegetation and the source of a multitude of spin-off services and products, Vegetation is a valuable forerunner of the kind of services that will be provided by the ambitious EU-backed Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative. It represents a total investment of €160 million, €55 million of which came from the European Commission.

“It is the example to follow in implementing Earth observations from space, as it places remote satellite sensing within the reach of users with limited computer resources, " explains Etienne Bartholomé of the Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) at the Ispra Joint Research Centre (JRC).

An eye on Africa
Access to the Vegetation images is set to become increasingly easy thanks to the Eumetsat organisation that distributes them, along with the Meteosat data, via its Eumetsat service. For Africa, this dissemination will use the Puma(3) network that is currently being set up with the help of the EU. This is a network of 57 easily maintained stations that have been in place since March 2004 (in Kenya) and that will be operational from the summer of 2005 in 53 countries and five African regional centres.

“The dissemination of the Vegetation products and their combined use with the Meteosat services lays the foundations for the future AMESD (African Monitoring of Environment and Sustainable Development) programme, the GMES component dedicated to Africa, “ explains Paul Counet, who prepared the Puma programme at Eumetsat and who is currently a member of the Commission’s Space Division.

“The Vegetation system has shown its operational efficiency compared with complex and costly satellites that remain largely experimental in nature,” stresses Bartholomé. “But how will the essential continuity of its global observations be guaranteed after 2008 when the GMES programme enters its operational phase?”

This continuity is not yet guaranteed by the remote sensing satellites currently being prepared in Europe. The replacement of the Vegetation instrument could become critical, if it is to continue to be implemented in the framework of the services offered by the GMES European system. 

(1) Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France, Service Fédéral Belge de Programmation de la Politique Scientifique (SPP), Swedish National Space Board (SNSB) and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI).
(2) Especially in the framework of the Geosuccess (Global Earth Observation in Support of Climate Change and Environmental Security Studies) product which coordinates the information provided by several orbiting instruments. 
(3) Preparation for the Use of the Meteosat Second Generation satellites in Africa.

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