Copernicus: Europe’s eyes on Earth

You might have heard us mention Copernicus before – not only on the Learning Zone, but regularly on our social media posts. However, in case you’re not familiar with the name, we’d like to tell you allllll about them now and how we, and other partner organisations, work together with them to help better understand our planet.

What is Copernicus?

Copernicus is the European Union‘s Earth Observation Programme, which is taking a continuous “health check” of the planet.

The programme was designed for the benefit of users (any citizen/organisation in the world) to be provided with near-real-time data, gathered from satellite/in situ (non space) observations, so that they might understand the planet and the environment better, in order to be able to improve the quality of life for all citizens in Europe.

What’s involved?

The planet and environment are monitored by a set of satellites from the “Sentinel” family. These satellites take measurements of our atmosphere, land, oceans and climate, and the data is openly available, for free, to users. The “in situ” data is delivered by sensors from ground-based, sea-borne or air-borne monitoring systems.

All of this data is used to provide information that helps improve our quality of life. Copernicus services process and transform the data into clear information, so that users can apply it to whatever they need it for (e.g. statistics or imagery). The data, going back years, can be compared in order to measure any changes or patterns, which can help to create better forecasts and much more.  

Why do we need Copernicus?

With an ever-growing population, our natural resources are getting lower and lower. We need more fresh water, clean air and fertile land. The Copernicus programme continually monitors the Earth and provides insights into our planet, checking things like air quality, sea surface height and marine resources so that users can tackle certain issues, create solutions and take preventative measures, so that citizens can be better prepared and protected in the face of disasters. 

What is being monitored?


The atmosphere is measured by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), and focuses on areas such as air quality, ozone layer and solar radiation.  

The service lets us know the current atmospheric situation and can also forecast the situation a few days ahead. This can be important, for example, in the case of wildfires and air pollution in general, and how safe an area is for citizens to be in.


The Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service (CMEMS) provides information on oceans and marine ecosystems.

These observations and forecasts support the protection of marine resources, the monitoring of climate change and marine safety. Providing this useful data can help with things like search and rescue operations and weather forecasting.


The Copernicus Land Monitoring Service (CLMS) provides information on ground cover, vegetation and the water cycle.

It also focuses on areas that are particularly vulnerable to environmental challenges and problems.


The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) responds to any challenges associated with human-induced climate changes, such as temperature rise (due to human-made emissions in the atmosphere).

The information gathered helps to monitor and predict climate change and new services can be developed based upon comparing past and current records/measurements.


The Copernicus Emergency Management Service (Copernicus EMS) provides accurate information to help manage natural disasters, man-made emergency situations, and humanitarian crises.

Examples of the services provided include generating maps based on satellite imagery, that can be given to different authorities to help with, for example, emergency responses and recovery. Early warnings for Europe can also be provided, for events such as floods, fires and droughts.


Information to improve security measures can be provided to help with prevention, preparation and response in a crisis.

Examples include border surveillance (rescuing more lives at sea), maritime surveillance (combating marine pollution) and support to EU external action (human rights and economic development). The organisation FRONTEX take care of the border surveillance component of the Copernicus Security Service.

Who uses these services?

As we mentioned, the data provided by Copernicus is available to anybody. The users of the data are mostly policymakers (people responsible for creating policies, especially in politics), and public authorities (e.g. local government) who use this information to either create environmental laws/policies, or to make decisions in case of an emergency (for example natural disasters).

The information can also be of great benefit to researchers and the science community, and be beneficial for many different areas, including agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

What satellites are used?

The Sentinel satellites have been specifically designed to meet the needs of the Copernicus services and its users. The first Sentinel satellite, Sentinel-1A was launched in 2014. Since then, the European Union agreed to place a constellation of almost 20 more satellites into orbit before 2030.


By Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr,

The twin satellites, Sentinel-1A and -1B were launched in April 2014 and April 2016. The two satellites provide all-weather, day and night radar imagery for both land and ocean services. 


By Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr,

Sentinel-2 also has twin satellites – Sentinel-2A and -2B that provide high-resolution, optical imagery for land services. The imagery provided shows, for example, vegetation, soil and water cover. The satellites were launched in June 2015 and March 2017. 


Do you remember the launch of Sentinel-3B earlier this year? It joined its twin, Sentinel-3A in orbit. Both satellites provide high-accuracy optical, radar and altimetry data for marine and land services. They accurately measure things like sea- and land-surface temperature and ocean colour. They were launched on February 2016 and April 2018, with EUMETSAT operating the satellites and delivering the marine mission, while ESA delivers the land mission.


Sentinel-4 is scheduled to be launched in 2019 and is not actually a new satellite, but an atmospheric sensor which will be placed on the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) satellites, and will provide data for atmospheric composition monitoring – this means monitoring, among other things, air quality trace gases and aerosols over Europe.


Sentinel-5 will also be dedicated to atmospheric composition monitoring and is again, not a new satellite but an atmospheric sensor, expected to launch in 2021. It will help map pollutants produced by power plants, heavy industry and road transport.


By SkywalkerPL – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Sentinel-5 Precursor is a satellite mission that launched in October 2017. It is a gap/filler mission, aiming to provide continuous data until the launch of Sentinel-5.


Sentinel-6 is planned for launch in 2020 and will provide high-accuracy altimetry for measuring global sea-surface height for operational oceanography and climate studies. It is a cooperative mission developed in partnership between Europe (EU, ESA and EUMETSAT) and the U.S. (NOAA and NASA).

Who else is involved in the work of Copernicus?

As well as the programme being coordinated and managed by the European Commission, it is also implemented in partnership with the Member States, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), EU Agencies and Mercator Océan.

These partners deliver complementary data from contributing missions, making it available for Copernicus. Read more on these activities here.

We hope you enjoyed learning about Copernicus, and why this programme is so important!

Is there anything else you’d like to learn about? Just send us an email:

Other useful links and further information:

Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS)
Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service (CMEMS)
Copernicus Land Monitoring Service (CLMS)
Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S)
Copernicus Emergency Management Service (Copernicus EMS) (Frontex)

Ground cover
Water cycle

*Information sourced from the Copernicus main website. Satellite images provided by:

Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr,
SkywalkerPL – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


About the Author

Natalie Lunt

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