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Europe's first Sentinel satellite shipped to Kourou

Posted: February 24, 2014

The first satellite in the European Union's long-awaited Copernicus Earth observation program arrived in French Guiana on Monday to prepare for liftoff on top of a Soyuz rocket in early April.

The Sentinel 1A spacecraft is unloaded from an Antonov cargo plane in a rain shower Monday in Cayenne, French Guiana. Photo credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace - Photo Optique Video du CSG - JM Guillon
Packed inside a shipping container aboard an Antonov An-124 transport plane, the Sentinel 1A environmental satellite rode across the Atlantic Ocean from Turin, Italy.

After a stopover for fuel in Senegal, the cargo jet landed in Cayenne, French Guiana, at about 10:20 a.m. local time (1320 GMT) before workers unloaded the spacecraft for an overland trip to the Guiana Space Center in nearby Kourou, according to Ramon Torres, Sentinel 1 project manager at the European Space Agency.

Over the next month, technicians will check the satellite's health, fill it with propellant and attach the craft to the Soyuz rocket's Fregat upper stage, which will deploy Sentinel 1A into a polar orbit more than 400 miles above Earth.

The spacecraft is the first in a series of Earth monitoring satellites developed by the EU and the European Space Agency.

The satellites will collect data on the environment for European policymakers and security authorities. Officials say the program will ensure Europe has access to the best information on the state of the land, oceans and atmosphere, helping leaders respond to natural disasters and craft environmental policies.

European institutions have spent 3.4 billion euros, nearly $4.7 billion, on the Copernicus program since 1998. The EU has committed another 3.8 billion euros to the program through 2020, raising the total investment to near $10 billion for the world's largest civil Earth observation initiative.

Europe plans to make Sentinel satellite data available to global users free of charge.

Sentinel 1A's shipment to French Guiana puts the satellite's launch on schedule for early April after factory crews worked two shifts nearly seven days a week in recent months to complete testing of the spacecraft.

Artist's concept of the Sentinel 1A satellite in orbit. Photo credit: ESA
The last phase of testing at the Thales plant in Cannes, France, involved verifying the satellite can withstand launch vibrations and remote compatibility checks with the ground control center in Darmstadt, Germany.

Liftoff is targeted for around April 3, pending final approval by Arianespace, the commercial operator of the Soyuz rocket in French Guiana. The launch time every day is fixed at 2102:26 GMT (5:02:26 p.m. EST).

Arianespace delayed Sentinel 1A's launch after an Ariane 5 rocket flight was pushed back two weeks to March 21 to resolve an issue with one of the launcher's commercial communications payloads.

Officials require about two weeks to reconfigure range assets between Ariane 5 and Soyuz launches at the Guiana Space Center.

The Soyuz launch with Sentinel 1A will mark the first flight of the Russian booster from French Guiana this year.

The 5,070-pound spacecraft, designed for a seven-year mission, is outfitted with a C-band radar to collect all-weather, day-and-night imagery of oceans and land. The mission will map forests and crops, track movements in sea ice, monitor oil spills and follow maritime traffic.

Depending on its operating mode, Sentinel 1A's radar can resolve surface features as small as 5 meters, or about 16 feet.

Sentinel 1A will be joined with the launch of an identical craft around the end of 2015, continuing radar measurements from the European Remote Sensing Satellites and the Envisat mission.

Europe is developing four other Sentinel missions to probe chemicals in the atmosphere, track climate changes, measure ocean waves and color, study vegetation and monitor land and ocean surface temperatures.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.