An unmanned Vega rocket blasted off from French Guiana this week to put a sophisticated Earth-watching satellite into orbit, according to a webcast from the European Space Agency.
Flying for the fifth time, the four-stage Vega rocket is carrying Europe's Sentinel-2A satellite, the newest member of the multi-billion euro Copernicus Earth-observation project.
From its orbital perch 488 miles (786 km) above Earth, Sentinel-2A is designed to take high-resolution, colour and infrared images for a wide array of environmental initiatives, including crop forecasting and monitoring natural disasters.
The first satellite of Europe's planned seven-member network launched in April 2014. Sentinel-1A is outfitted with radars that can monitor sea ice, oil spills and land use, even when skies are cloudy.
Sentinel-2A will operate in tandem with another satellite, to be launched in late 2016, carrying high-tech imaging equipment that can capture a wider range of colours than other Earth imaging spacecraft, such as France's Spot 5 or the US Landsat satellites.
"We have not just all the colours that are visible, but also infrared, which is very good for monitoring vegetation," Volker Liebig, director of ESA's Earth Observation programme, told Reuters.
Sentinel-2A is designed to capture 290km swaths of Earth and revisit the same point on the planet every 10 days, providing more up-to-date images and at higher resolution than have been available previously.
Once its twin, Sentinel-2B, is operating next year, the satellites will be able to fly over and image the same part of Earth every five days.
The images will be used for a wide variety of programmes, including locating sites for refugee camps in humanitarian crises, monitoring the destruction or growth of forests and estimating fertilizer and water needs for efficient crop production.
The data will be provided to users on a free and open basis.
It means raw data beamed back from space can be analysed, processed and harmonised by public and private sector agencies.
Liebig said ESA was actively working with international programmes that seek to forecast harvests so the United Nations World Food Programme can anticipate need and avoid shortages, which can cause spikes in food prices.
"When you have the information two months in advance, you can organise transports. If it's only two weeks, it's very difficult," he said.
Sentinel-2 is designed and built by a consortium of about 60 companies led by Airbus Defence and Space.
The European Union and the European Space Agency have committed funding of about €8.4bn for the Copernicus programme which runs until 2020.
Sentinel-2 is designed and built by a consortium of about 60 companies led by Airbus Defence and Space. (Reuters)