The Copernicus Sentinel-6A mission, which carries a radar altimeter to observe changes in sea-surface topography, is slated to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in November aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON — Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy won the largest share of prime contracts the European Space Agency awarded July 1 for further development of six new Copernicus satellite missions.

All told, Thales Alenia Space was awarded the lead development role for three of the six planned Earth-observation missions, a contract haul totaling more than 1.4 billion euros ($1.6 billion). The Thales-led missions will use synthetic aperture radar, hyperspectral imaging and microwave radiometry to monitor the Earth’s oceans and land masses to track soil moisture, ocean salinity, and sea ice concentrations, among other variables.

Airbus Defence and Space, with a win apiece for its German and Spanish divisions, hauled in 675 million euros in prime contract awards for missions that will employ a mix of radar altimetry, microwave radiometry and thermal infrared imaging to keep tabs on sea ice thickness and land surface temperatures.

OHB Space Systems of Germany, meanwhile, won a 445-million-euro contract to lead the further development of a mission that will employ near-infrared and shortwave-infrared spectrometers to monitor the impact of human activity on atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The 2.55 billion euros in contract awards kick off the key design phase for the six missions, leading to a planned mid-to-late 2021 decision on proceeding into full development.

More details on the selected missions, and how they fit into Europe’s broader Copernicus program, can be found in the news release ESA issued July 3:

Contracts awarded for development of six new Copernicus missions

Following the financial commitment from ESA Member States at last November’s Council at Ministerial Level Space19+, ESA’s industrial policy committee has approved contracts totalling €2.55 billion to forward the development of six new Copernicus satellite missions, each mission comprising two satellites, a development and a recurrent unit.

The overall package is co-funded by the EU and ESA Member States, and relies on future funding from the EU Multiannual financial framework.

The approval provides the green light to start industrial contracts for the six missions. However, two important milestones need to be met before the missions can be fully developed: an agreement between ESA and the EU for the EU co-funded part of the programme, and a positive decision by the EC as well as ESA/EU Member States to go from Phase B2 to Phase C/D.

This decision point is planned in the second half of 2021.

Copernicus is the biggest provider of Earth observation data in the world – and while the EU is at the helm of this environmental monitoring programme, ESA develops, builds and launches the dedicated satellites. It also operates some of the missions and ensures the availability of data from third party missions.

Copernicus is often quoted as a prime example how the European Commission and ESA can successfully work together in space, making perfect use of each other’s strengths.

The current suite of Sentinel missions are at the heart of the programme. Data from the Sentinels feed into the Copernicus Services, which help address challenges such as food security, air pollution, rising sea levels, diminishing polar ice, natural disasters and, importantly, climate change.

Looking to the future, six high-priority candidate missions will expand the current capabilities of the Sentinels and address EU policy priorities and gaps in Copernicus user needs.

The new industrial contracts now kick off the key design phases (Phase B) for these six missions.

The Copernicus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Monitoring, CO2M, mission will carry a near-infrared and shortwave-infrared spectrometer to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by human activity. OHB-System Germany will lead the development with a contract value of €445 million.

The Copernicus Hyperspectral Imaging Mission, CHIME, will carry a hyperspectral imager to return detailed information for sustainable agricultural and biodiversity management. Thales Alenia Space France will lead the development with a contract value of €455 million.

The Copernicus Imaging Microwave Radiometer, CIMR, mission will carry a microwave radiometer to provide observations of sea-surface temperature, sea-ice concentration and sea-surface salinity. Thales Alenia Space Italy will lead the development with a contract value of €495 million.

The Copernicus Polar Ice and Snow Topography Altimeter, CRISTAL, mission will carry a multi-frequency radar altimeter and microwave radiometer to measure and monitor sea-ice thickness and overlying snow depth. Airbus Defence and Space Germany will lead the development with a contract value of €300 million.

The Copernicus Land Surface Temperature Monitoring, LSTM, mission will carry a high spatial-temporal resolution thermal infrared sensor to provide observations of land-surface temperature for sustainable agriculture and to predict drought. Airbus Defence and Space Spain will lead the development with a contract value of €375 million.

The L-band Synthetic Aperture Radar, ROSE-L, mission will carry an L-band synthetic radar altimeter that penetrates through materials such as vegetation, to support forest management and to monitor subsidence and soil moisture. Thales Alenia Space Italy will lead the development with a contract value of €482 million.

ESA’s Director General, Jan Wörner, said, “With us concerned about issues such as climate change, Europe’s Copernicus programme and the Sentinel missions play a pivotal role in providing free and open data to manage the environment.
“These new contracts are the next step in ensuring the family of Copernicus satellites expands to deliver vital information that will ultimately help protect the environment and citizens alike.”

European Commission’s Deputy-Director General for Space, Pierre Delsaux, noted, “Copernicus is a European success story and the cooperation between the European Commission and ESA is exemplary in implementing this programme.

These new Copernicus satellite missions will not only provide key information for European citizens and decision makers to support the implementation of the European Green Deal, but also to further contribute to the EU’s Digital Agenda.”

ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher, added, “These contracts for the development of the high-priority missions is also a really important step for industry in our Member States, particularly as we are living in times of COVID-19 where there is a lot of uncertainty.

“We now also look forward to the second half of next year, at the end of Phase B2 of development, when we hope to get commitment from the EU and our Member States to fully develop these new exciting missions.” [ESA]


Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...