Press Release

Director Jose Achache unveils new Observing the Earth website

By SpaceRef Editor
July 25, 2004
Filed under , ,
Director Jose Achache unveils new Observing the Earth website

What is the use of Earth Observation? Quite a lot is the short reply; the full
list gets longer all the time. For the complete answer, visit ESA’s new
Observing the Earth Portal, redesigned to highlight the growing number of
applications of this unique technique, and featuring a mass of information on
the full scope of ESA remote sensing activities.

To mark its launch, ESA Earth Observation Director José Achache explains the
thinking the new Portal has been designed around, and shares his views on the
past, present and future of Earth Observation.

How has the concept of Earth Observation developed over the years?

“Probably one of the most significant achievements of the space age has been the
re-evaluation of planet Earth. When the exploration of space started in the
1960s, space was regarded solely as the means of leaving the Earth to
investigate the ends of the universe.

“Since then, a remarkable change in perspective has taken place. The process of
space exploration served to underline the unique value and fragility of the
Earth environment. And today, space has come back to Earth in a very practical
way: the data returned from satellites turns out to have qualities that
classical ground-based observation techniques simply cannot match.

“Measurements from space are global, continuous, objective and precise. This
rich source of information gives us the ability to perceive our planet in many
new and varied ways, and this is an ability that can be put to a wide variety of
potential uses.

“Maximising its take-up has been a priority of the Earth Observation Directorate
in recent years, with a strategy of fostering the development of new
applications and services based on user needs.”

Does this strategy involve reaching out beyond purely scientific users?

“Very much so, and the new Earth Observation Portal is an important part of
this. The biggest single block to the wider take-up of satellite data is lack of
familiarity with it.

“The Portal has been designed to inform people in a clear way not just about
individual missions but about Earth Observation as a whole: how it is a tool to
improve scientific understanding of our planet, but at the same time helping to
secure our environment, and also increasingly enabling value-added services to
benefit our economy.

“In fact, the Portal is directly based around this set of themes: space to
understand, to secure and to benefit.

Each of these themes features within them a number of introductory background
articles and highlighted examples, as well as links to related ESA resources.”

How does Earth Observation help to better understand our planet?

“Satellites can monitor the state of our world in all sorts of exact ways. They
can map land cover and biomass health, identify millimetre-scale buckling in the
Earth’s crust, measure sea surface temperature to a few tenths of a degree, plot
any increases in average sea level or decreases in ice sheet thickness, chart
the chemical composition of the atmosphere down to a few molecules per million,
and identify microscopic aerosols drifting in the air.

“Accurately characterising these various interrelated components of the Earth
system improves our knowledge of its current state, but also our potential to
predict its future evolution.

“There was a time when the Earth sciences were concentrated on the past,
modelling how various geomorphic phenomena gave rise to the world, its
landscapes and climate. Now the field is coming to be attached to the future
tense, as it responds to new needs concerning the forecasting of climate change,
the evolution of the global environment and the incidence of natural disasters.

“Nowadays the knowledge of the laws of physics enables increasingly
sophisticated numerical models of the Earth system that allow scientists to
extrapolate its future state. The more closely these models match observed
reality the more confident we can be in their predictions. By assimilating data
from satellites these models are being established as reliable forecasting tools.”

What role can satellites play in securing our environment?

“This same detailed wide-area perspective that aids science is a tool for more
effective stewardship of our environment and better protection of our citizens
from natural hazards. Effective governmental decision-making requires the
acquisition of accurate up-to-date information, and Earth Observation makes
possible the gathering of high-quality intelligence on a global scale.

“The most high-profile example is ESA’s joint endeavour with the European Union
called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES). The aim of GMES is
to set up information-gathering infrastructures and services for governments,
administrations and municipal authorities. Its remit includes the forecasting
and managements of natural risks, management of resources, monitoring and
implementing major international environmental agreements, the management of
wetlands and rural areas, and the conservation of biodiversity and national

“ESA has commenced with the five-year GMES Services Element (GSE) comprising
operational services integrating space and ground-based observations. Many of
these services have evolved from existing pilot projects — also detailed in the
new Portal — dealing with activities such as international treaty
implementation and supporting civil protection agencies.

To give one current example of how Earth Observation is helping to secure people
and the environment, ESA has been a founding member of the international Charter
on Space and Major Disasters, committing world space agencies to supply
satellite data to civil protection groups responding to natural or man-made
disasters. In less than four years the Charter has been activated more than 50

And how does Earth Observation benefit our economy?

“The single clearest practical benefit from Earth Observation is the improved
accuracy of weather forecasting made possible by meteorological satellites like
ESA’s Meteosat series – in this instance every single citizen is a daily
consumer of satellite data, and it has brought huge benefits to agriculture and

“Beyond this now self-sustaining aspect of Earth Observation, we have been
working hard to develop other applications for commercial activities. There has
been a long history of attempting to commercialise Earth Observation during the
last 20 years, but with an early emphasis on direct selling of satellite imagery
rather than value-adding services.

“The example of weather forecasting shows how this initial strategy was flawed
— the ordinary person watching the weather on television is not interested in
the satellite image alone but the analysis and forecast derived from that image.

“Our emphasis now is on tailoring Earth Observation-based information products
and services for specialised market segments, and doing this by fostering links
between the Earth Observation industry and new user groups. The result has been
the start of specific services serving such activities as oil and gas
exploration, forest management, agricultural — most notably rice —
forecasting, and ship navigation through sea ice and bad weather.

“More broadly, Earth Observation can also underpin our future economic
development by ensuring it occurs in a sustainable way, with natural resources
being exploited at a replaceable rate. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg made clear the role space-based systems could play
in helping to manage growth so that finite resources such as agricultural land
and clean water are not diminished.

“Detailed information on all this work is available at the new Earth Observation
Portal. I hope people will visit it so they can judge the importance of these
activities for themselves.”

Director Achache, thank you very much.

Related Link

* Observing the Earth Portal


[Image 1: ]
Envisat’s Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) returns data on land
cover as well as ocean colour. MERIS surface imagery has been mapped onto to the
land area of this globe, from the white of Arctic snows to the bleached-out
yellow of the Sahara.

Credits: ESA 2004

[Image 2: ]
José Achache, Director of Earth Observation at ESA.

Credits: ESA

[Image 3: ]
Envisat’s Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer (AATSR) continuously monitors
sea surface temperature to an accuracy of a few tenths of a degree. This is a
false-colour representation of AATSR results over the Atlantic, with blue
correspondng to coldest waters and red the warmest.

Credits: ESA 2004

[Image 4: ]
Envisat’s ASAR image acquired 17 November 2002 shows a double-headed oil spill
originating from the stricken Prestige tanker, Prestige, lying 100 km off the
Spanish coast.

Credits: ESA

[Image 5: ]
This satellite-derived image shows local slope face direction, overlaid with the
Frascati Denominazione d’Origine Controllata, outlined in black. The ‘hottest’
reddish colours face the most south, and therefore get more Sun exposure, while
‘cooler’ colours face towards the north. Such information could be imported into
the proposed Bacchus geographical information system tool to permit vinegrowers
to estimate optimal sites to cultivate particular grape species.

SpaceRef staff editor.