The European Union operates across a wide range of policy areas, aiming to improve the daily lives of the community's 500 million citizens. One such policy area is the exploration of outer space. Whilst it may be difficult to show how citizens could be affected by the EU's activities in space, this policy actually has a direct impact on the lives of Europeans, offering a wide range of concrete benefits on the ground.
The European Union's Space Policy is a relatively young policy, having only been introduced in 2007 in cooperation with the European Space Agency. Its overall objective is to enable the EU to carry out peaceful operations in space, both for the benefit of European citizens and the economy and for the strategic purpose of ensuring that Europe can take a leading role in space-related matters through which it can compete with other international actors in this field.
Two tangible applications through which the European Union seeks to implement its ambitions in outer space are the Galileo and the Copernicus programmes. I have previously written about "Galileo", an initiative that aims to establish a global satellite system for Europe. The Copernicus Programme, on the other hand, was designed to enable earth observation by means of satellites and stations on the ground. Named after the famous scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, this initiative aims to gather extensive information on environmental and security-related matters and thus provide its users with reliable and free-of-charge data services.
So how does this "service from the space" translate into concrete benefits on the ground?
The Copernicus Programme works across six different fields of application, which include land monitoring services and the provision of data in cases of emergency. Whilst some of its services have already been operational for a while, others are still waiting to be launched. Each of the applications under the Copernicus Programme provides very practical information that can prove vital to policy-makers in their long and short-term decision making.
The land monitoring service, for instance, provides detailed information about natural and urban areas. This means that the system can monitor the state and the development of land surfaces, provide information about water cycles, monitor natural resources and the developments of urban land use and green areas. This data can inform various decision-making procedures, for instance in the field of forest management or urban planning.
When it comes to natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies, the Copernicus programme can equally be drawn upon in order to ensure the best possible response to the crisis at hand. In the event of a natural disaster, for instance, the programme can provide detailed information about the extent and the location of the damage and assess in which areas the population has been affected by the destruction caused. This information can also help rescue workers to better target their operations and can thus turn out to be a life-saving tool for victims who need urgent help. Although this service was only launched a short time ago, it has already completed a wide range of operations.
In addition to the land and emergency monitoring services currently provided by Copernicus, four other applications are expected to become operational by 2014. The latter address issues related to the sea, air quality, climate change and even security. Concretely, the programme would thus be able to provide additional services that include the monitoring of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere or the weather conditions at sea, as well as ensuring improved surveillance of border areas. This information can subsequently be accessed by users across different policy areas in order to support them in making the best possible decisions.
Besides its practical use in various fields, the Copernicus programme is also said to provide economic benefits, acting both as a catalyst for growth and as an important job creation engine over the next decades.
Though many of the activities carried out under the Copernicus initiative may seem out of reach and far removed from our everyday reality, they concretely affect the wellbeing of citizens and the planet. The Copernicus programme should enable policy-makers to better adapt to the constant changes that occur around the planet - be they man-made changes such as urban sprawls or natural occurrences such as floods, earth quakes or seasonal changes. Whilst it is not possible to control all the changes that this planet undergoes on a daily basis, systems like Copernicus enable policy-makers to better control their responses to them. This will hopefully allow for a better adaptation to climatic developments, more targeted disaster relief and improved health and security for citizens, both in the European Union and beyond.