Celebrating a quarter century of Copernicus

13 June 2023
Stockholm captured by Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite. Credit: European Commission.
Stockholm captured by Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite. Credit: European Commission

Can you believe it? Copernicus, Europe’s Earth Observation programme, has been around for a quarter of a century. That’s 25 years of looking at our planet and its environment for the benefit of all European citizens.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton emphasised the “crucial role of Copernicus in improving Europe's resilience and strategic autonomy, and its contribution to complement Member States' civil and military situational awareness capabilities with EO data”.

While today Copernicus is widely regarded as the world’s best Earth Observation system, it was by no means built in a day. In fact, it all started with an idea…

A little stroll down memory lane

The year was 1998. Europeans agreed on a single currency and most of us were still surfing the internet via AltaVista. And while Europe was busy partying on the Vengabus, representatives from the European Commission and European space industry were on a mission to take the pulse of our planet and transform the way we see the world.

That mission would eventually lead them to the shores of Italy’s Lago Maggiore, where, on 19 May 1998, they adopted the Baveno Manifesto, which formalised the idea of creating a global and continuous European Earth Observation system. 

Named Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), the system began providing its first ‘fast track’ services in 2008. These services focused on land monitoring, marine monitoring and emergency response. 

In April 2012, the Emergency Management Service – Mapping was declared the first fully operational service within the GMES Initial Operations. This was soon followed by a name change, with the European Commission announcing that Europe’s Earth Observation programme would be called Copernicus, paying homage to the great European scientist and observer.

Along with existing commercial, public satellites and the in-situ component, Copernicus is served by the Sentinel family of satellites, which are specifically designed to meet the needs of Copernicus’ services and their users. Starting with the launch of Sentinel-1A in 2014, the EU set the course for building a constellation of almost 20 orbiting satellites by 2030. 

Then, in 2021, with the formation of the EU Space Programme, EUSPA was charged with promoting Copernicus services, data and market uptake.

Exceeding expectations 

Clearly Copernicus has by far exceeded expectations to become one of the most ambitious and successful Earth Observation programmes worldwide. 

The programme consists of a complex set of systems that collect data not only from Earth Observation satellites, but also in-situ sensors like ground stations, as well as from airborne and sea-borne sensors. This data is processed, analysed and transformed into value-added information by Copernicus’ services, which currently address six thematic areas: land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency and security.

These services provide datasets dating back years – even decades – that users can compare and search to monitor for changes. Patterns can be examined and used to build, for example, better forecasting models of the ocean and the atmosphere. Maps are also created from Copernicus imagery, from which features and changes can be identified and statistical information extracted.

Supporting a wide range of applications 

All of Copernicus’ data, tools and services are used to support a wide range of applications and policies including for environmental protection; urban, regional and local planning; agriculture and forestry; fisheries; health; tourism and transport; climate change and sustainable development; and civil protection and security – to name only a few.

Take for example BIRDWATCH, an important project that is building a Copernicus-based application to improve the management of farmland birds. Using satellite-enabled monitoring and evaluation, the solution will play a big role in protecting agricultural biodiversity and improving the health of farmland ecosystems in Europe. 

Speaking of agriculture, farmers are using Copernicus-derived information to monitor the health of their crops and study soil quality. Meanwhile, in cities, urban planners use Earth Observation data to design sustainable smart cities and build infrastructure that is more resilient against the impact of climate change. Cities will also leverage the likes of 100KTREEs, a mapping and modelling tool that uses Copernicus data to optimise the planting of trees in urban areas, and to monitor their health.    

Copernicus also complements the other components of the EU Space Programme, including Galileo and EGNOS. For example, construction companies can use European GNSS (EGNSS), together with Earth Observation, to first select locations with the best conditions and then monitor the building or infrastructure asset over its entire lifespan.   

Clearly, there’s a lot to celebrate about Copernicus!

On 8 June, EUSPA joined the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the European Space Agency, and the Swedish National Space Agency, along with many others, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Copernicus.

“The Earth Observation component of the EU Space Programme is globally acknowledged as a representation of European excellence. It serves as one of catalysts for innovation and business development within the New Space sector for the European Union," declared EUSPA Executive Director Rodrigo da Costa, confirming EUSPA commitment to support companies in fully harnessing the opportunities presented by Copernicus.

The main event took place in Stockholm, under the auspices of the Swedish Presidency, with speakers from all over Europe.

Copernicus 25 has been a day of inspiration, innovation and fun.

Media note: This feature can be republished without charge provided the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) is acknowledged as the source at the top or the bottom of the story. You must request permission before you use any of the photographs on the site. If you republish, we would be grateful if you could link back to the EUSPA website (http://www.euspa.europa.eu).

Updated: Jun 13, 2023