On March 1, the European Space Agency (ESA) lofted ENVISAT, the largest Earth observation satellite ever built, into orbit from Kourou, French Guiana. The original scheduled lifetime of the eight-ton giant was only five years. However last March marked its eleventh birthday, after having completed more than 50,000 orbits and covered a total distance of 2.25 billion kilometers. With ten cutting edge optical and radar sensors aboard the satellite, its mission is the continuous observation and monitoring of Earth's land, atmosphere, oceans and ice caps. Thanks to its instruments more than 1,000 tera octets of data at a rate of 280 giga octets per day. Based on this data, researchers have acquired a better understanding of our planet's mechanisms (i.e. greenhouse gas concentrations, the hole in the ozone layer, rising sea levels, ocean surface temperature, variations of the ice caps and ocean ice, volcanoes, earthquakes, plant cover modifications).
ENVISAT, the largest environmental observation satellite ever built Crédits : ESA/Denmann production
An estimated 2,000 scientific publications have drawn on the data collected by ENVISAT. More than 1,000 scientists from across the world attended the 2004 ENVISAT symposium in Salzburg, Austria, where the first scientific mission results were presented, a recognition of the fact that the satellite is one of the most important tools made available to the Earth observation scientific community. During another symposium on ENVISAT three years later, the first global measurement of greenhouse gases was presented, demonstrating the fast growth of carbon dioxide and seasonal variations of methane concentrations. Today, more than 4,000 scientific projects regularly use ENVISAT data.
Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico observed by ENVISAT on April 28, 2010 Crédits : ESA
ENVISAT has led to the development of numerous products and services. For instance, satellite observation was established over the south of the Indian Ocean to monitor illegal fishing and help protect the Patagonian tooth fish that has high commercial value. Thanks to ENVISAT, oil spills, such as the the 2002 Prestige spill, have been monitored, the ice sea in the Baltic sea, among others, has been mapped, and icebergs during the Vendée Globe Challenge sailing race were detected. ENVISAT data has provided greater insight into earthquake mechanisms, for instance during the March 2011 quake in Japan, where the researchers observed that the ensuing tsunami then spread to Antarctica causing the ice shelf to break. ENVISAT data is also used for European and global operational services, such as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) and GEOSS (Global Earth Observation System of Systems).
SENTINEL 1, scheduled to take over for for ENVISAT in 2013 Crédits : ESA - P. Carril
Since 2010, ENVISAT's orbit has been altered so it would remain operational for at least three more years. The purpose is to ensure measurement continuity for crucial Earth observation data until the next satellite generation, the SENTINEL series, becomes operational in 2013. SENTINEL 1 will be fitted with radar providing images 24/7 in all weather, to monitor oceans and land. SENTINEL 3 will be focusing on Earth observation and operational oceanography.