ESA has selected Italian company Leonardo to build the main instrument for the upcoming FLEX satellite to study the health of Earth’s vegetation.

At an event held today in Florence, Italy, Leonardo signed a €74 million contract to design, build and test the spectrometer for ESA’s eighth Earth Explorer over the next four years.

Planned for launch by 2022, it will detect and measure the light emitted by plants as they convert sunlight and the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide into energy. While this photosynthetic activity is invisible to the naked eye, the instrument will observe the fluorescence of vegetation, yielding important information about plant health.

Information about the health and stress of the planet’s vegetation is important as the growing global population places increasing demands on the production of food and animal feed.

In addition, the Fluorescence Explorer – FLEX – satellite will improve our understanding of the way carbon moves between plants and the atmosphere and how photosynthesis affects the carbon and water cycles.

“This mission will be the next important step in ESA’s Earth observation programme. Like its predecessors, it will be a marvel of European space technology,” said Josef Aschbacher, Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes.

“It will deliver a completely new type of data to European scientists and will pave the way for a better understanding of the factors influencing the vegetation on Earth.”

A leader in electro-optical instruments, Leonardo will lead a consortium of European companies, including primary partner OHB System AG.

“This contract highlights Leonardo’s leadership in the market of electro-optical instruments for the space sector,” said Fabrizio Giulianini, Director of Electronics, Defence and Security Systems for the company.

“We have built, together with Italy’s space agency and the scientific community, numerous high-tech tools for important international space missions. From our laboratories, we’ve delivered electro-optical hyperspectral and multispectral sensors that have won business competitions worldwide.”

FLEX will orbit in tandem with one of the Copernicus Sentinel-3 satellites – which carries a Leonardo instrument to measure sea and land temperature.

Together, the satellites will provide an integrated package of measurements to help respond to challenges associated with climate change and the sustainable development of ecosystems, as well as provide information to the agricultural sector.