To protect the environment, we need accurate information about how the natural environment is changing and how human settlement is affecting it. Satellites can provide reliable and highly accurate information over long periods of time and on a global scale — even in regions where there is no human presence but where the effects of human activities can be measured — so satellite data is a perfect complement to measurements taken on the ground. Observation of the Earth from space is crucial to defining and implementing responsible environmental policies at local, national, regional and international levels.
Thales Alenia Space works with governments, scientists and industry stakeholders to support environmental monitoring programmes. For over 30 years, the company has been a leading supplier of European Earth observation satellites, the Meteosat system — a global standard in geostationary meteorological monitoring — and Poseidon radar altimeters, which have paved the way for operational oceanography.
By developing climate models that provide an idea of what the world of the future may look like, satellites play a vital role in monitoring and understanding climate issues. Thales is proud to contribute to their success.
Observing the Earth from space
As a first-tier partner of various international agencies (ESA, Eumetsat, CNES, ASI, NASA, etc.), Thales contributes to nearly all of Europe's climate missions.
Copernicus: the European Earth observation programme
Thales plays a major role in the European Copernicus programme , which combines data from environmental satellites and on-site measurement instruments to produce a comprehensive overview of the state of our planet.
The programme's space component uses the Sentinel constellation of satellites.
Sentinel 1's mission is to monitor the planet using radar sensors, in all types of weather, day and night. The satellite is tracking changes in the polar ice caps, monitoring marine pollution and oil spills, mapping ground movements, improving emergency services and studying the planet's forests, water and soil. The Sentinel 1A satellite was launched into polar orbit in 2014.
Sentinel 3 will monitor the conditions of oceans (currents, marine life, etc.), ice caps and coastal areas (pollution, currents, etc.). These measurements will allow us to better monitor the impact of climate change (melting ice, rise in sea level, etc.), enhance maritime security and make weather forecasting more accurate by helping to understand interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere.
The data from Sentinel 3 will be compiled for a global vegetation monitoring mission to determine the current status of the Earth's natural resources and help to plan future development.
Monitoring greenhouse gases
Monitoring greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is a major challenge that involves identifying human sources of emissions and studying carbon sinks and how they are evolving as a result of climate change.
Two complementary Earth observation initiatives — the French Microcarb programme and the European Carbonsat programme — are working together to meet these objectives.
For 30 years, millions of people have been getting daily weather updates based on images taken by Meteosat, a family of satellites developed by Thales Alenia Space for the European Space Agency (ESA) and Eumetsat. These satellites have brought vivid images of highs and lows, low-pressure systems and cloud cover right to our television screens and smartphones.
Every day, over half of the world gets weather forecasts from satellites built by Thales Alenia Space.
Data collected by Meteosat satellites is not only used to generate daily weather forecasts but is also critical to anticipating abrupt weather events, such as hurricanes, storms and floods, and monitoring long-term climate change.
Meteosat: a LONG LINE OF weather satellites
On 24 January 2015, Meteosat-7, the 7th and last of the first-generation Meteosat satellites, became the longest-serving Eumetsat satellite ever, at 17 years, 4 months and 23 days. Launched in September 1997, the satellite had a contractual life cycle of 5 years and is still operating above the Indian Ocean.
Meteosat-7 served as the transition between the first six Meteosat satellites and the four second-generation satellites, all developed by Thales Alenia Space for ESA and Eumetsat. The last European meteorological satellite (MSG-3, second-generation Meteosat, 3rd model) was launched in 2012. It will be joined in 2015 by the fourth and final second-generation model (MSG-4).
With a launch date in July 2015, MSG-4 — the final second-generation Meteosat satellite (see box) — is the 10th meteorological satellite developed by Thales Alenia Space to be placed into orbit since the late 1970s. With the new satellite, weather forecasting will take a giant step forward, with significantly better short-term reliability. The satellite's mission is also being expanded thanks to an additional instrument that will analyse gases in the atmosphere.
Thales Alenia Space is also the prime contractor for the third-generation Meteosat (MTG) satellites, developed in partnership with OHB of Germany. In addition to significantly improving the satellite's imaging performance, the MTG will be the first satellite to conduct a hyperspectral sounding mission from a geostationary orbit.
Information based on imagery of the globe and hyperspectral sounding of the atmosphere will also deliver unprecedented volumes of data on water vapour and temperature profiles. The increase in the amount of historical data available will help climatologists better understand how the climate is evolving.
In the planet’s climate system, the interaction between oceans, ice caps and the atmosphere is critical. The balance between these three systems controls the Earth's climate, but today that balance is being affected by climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
Satellites are the only way to obtain a comprehensive picture of the oceans. They continuously collect data on sea-surface height with an accuracy of within 1 cm — critical to understanding ocean phenomena and verifiable thanks to onboard radar sensors — and measure winds, currents, eddies, salinity, etc.
The Poseidon revolution
Thales Alenia Space has been the world leader in operational oceanography since the early 1990s with its Poseidon radar altimeters. Poseidon technology, developed in partnership with CNES and tested on the Topex satellite beginning in 1992, revolutionised the world of oceanography. Its accurate measurements identified the mechanisms of the thermohaline circulation of the world's oceans — a driver of the Earth's climate — and showed the rise in sea levels due to climate change.
All satellites in the Jason mission, which followed the Topex-Poseidon mission in the early 2000s, are equipped with Poseidon radar altimeters.
Jason-3, which will be launched in 2015, will focus on measuring sea levels to provide data for climate change monitoring and projection models.
The future of oceanography has arrived
In January 2015, Thales Alenia Space was selected to develop the new Surface Water & Ocean Oceanography (SWOT) oceanographic satellite for the French space agency CNES and NASA in the United States.
Scheduled to launch in 2020 for a three-year demonstration mission, SWOT will collect both oceanographic and hydrological data.
As part of its oceanographic mission, the French-American satellite will allow researchers to determine ocean surface and wave levels, with a better resolution than the Jason satellites. This information will be used to analyse and understand the effects of coastal circulation on marine life, ecosystems, water quality and energy transfers, providing a better understanding of the relationship between oceans and the atmosphere.
The satellite's hydrological mission will involve measuring changes in water levels in wetlands, lakes and reservoirs and the flows of rivers on continental land masses.
The company was chosen by the European Maritime Safety Agency to contribute to the CleanSeaNet programme. CleanSeaNet analyses satellite images on behalf of EU member states in order to identify illegal or accidental oil spills in territorial waters. The programme uses data sent by satellites such as Envisat, Radarsat-1 and -2 and Sentinel 1, the first Copernicus satellite, to the Santa Maria ground station in the Azores.
Observing the Earth from the sky
UNMANNED SYSTEMS on the look-out
Missions that were once carried out by aircraft or helicopter — forest fire monitoring, radioactivity measurements, marine pollution detection, etc. — can now be conducted by unmanned air systems (UAS) at lower cost and with greater accuracy.
Created in 2010 at the initiative of the Aquitaine regional council in Western France and Thales, the high-skilled network for UAS development and operations known as the AETOS cluster brings together 80 of the region's aerospace companies and research laboratories. The network has already produced operational UAS applications such as forest monitoring solutions, which have been tested by firefighters in the densely forested Landes region of France.
Other ongoing R&D projects include high-precision reconnaissance for vineyards, monitoring everything from soil conditions to the health of the vines, automated aerial surveillance of underground gas and oil pipelines, and maritime surveillance, including pollution detection, for coastal areas.
Unmanned systems do not provide the same perspectives as manned aircraft or helicopters. They can add to the immersive experience and provide valuable additional information. Ideal for conducting routine surveillance of industrial and natural sites, these systems have yet to reach their full potential, and many new applications are in the pipeline.
EarthLab: a global network of environmental monitoring centres
Set up in 2013 by Telespazio France, the EarthLab programme brings together research centres and operational services to meet the needs of local communities.
The plan is to open a dozen EarthLab centres around the globe. Two are already operational: one in Bordeaux, France and another near Libreville, Gabon. These centres conduct operational environmental monitoring, particularly through the use of satellite observations and unmanned air systems.
EarthLab uses the data to design and implement solutions that meet the specific needs of local businesses, farmers, oil companies, ship-owners and other users, working with them to define functions and provide ongoing support.
The Bordeaux EarthLab has started by focusing on the wine industry, forestry and coastal management, testing its solutions in Bordeaux vineyards, the Landes forests and the Basque coast. The centre in Gabon is focusing on monitoring forests, land use, maritime pollution and shipping lanes.
EarthLab: over 20 areas of focus in 4 main fields
Agriculture - Vineyards
 Thales Alenia Space is a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Finmeccanica (33%).
 Formerly Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), a joint initiative of the European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA).
 The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.
 Large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by temperature and salinity fluxes in water masses.
 Jason is a joint CNES-NASA mission.
 In collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
 Joint Venture between Finmeccanica and Thales.