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Europe signs Earth observer deal

14 April 08 15:16 GMT

The European Space Agency (Esa) has ordered the latest spacecraft in a major global monitoring programme.

The agency signed the £240m (305m-euro) contract with industrial partner Thales Alenia Space on Monday to provide the Sentinel-3 Earth observation satellite.

There are plans to launch five Sentinel spacecraft to track changes in the land, oceans, weather and climate.

Esa official Volker Liebig said Sentinel-3 would "enable Europe to observe important ocean parameters".

The Sentinel family of satellites form a central component of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme, which is being led by the European Commission (EC).

GMES is designed to provide Europe's politicians with independent environmental data to support policy decisions.

The programme will have a particular emphasis on climate change.

The Sentinel-3 mission is designed to provide long-term remote sensing data for ocean analysis, forecasting and service provision.

It is equipped with an advanced radar altimeter and a multi-channel optical imaging instrument to collect a wide range of other data.

These will enable Sentinel-3 to gather information on sea surface height, sea and land surface temperature, ocean colour and land colour to a high degree of accuracy and reliability.

International effort

A separate contract, to provide the Sentinel-2 satellite, a multispectral optical imaging mission which will collect land-based information, will be signed with EADS Astrium on Thursday 17 April.

GMES is one part of an international co-operative effort known as Global Earth Observation System of Systems (Geoss).

This is designed to bring together existing and new hardware and software, making it compatible to supply Earth observation data to countries around the world.

British companies were hoping some Sentinel contracts would come to the UK - especially given former Prime Minister Tony Blair's statements on climate change and vocal support for GMES.

However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) entered the Esa programme at such a low level of financial contribution, the loss of the prime contractor role to the French-Italian company Thales Alenia Space was inevitable, observers say.

The Sentinel-3 satellite will provide data continuity beyond Europe's current lead space observation platform - Envisat. The eight-tonne Envisat satellite launched in 2002 had considerable UK involvement.

Sentinel-3's measurements of sea surface height will complement those of the US-European project dedicated to measuring the height of the oceans - Jason. The latest version of Jason will be launched in June.

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