ESA Copernicus: Interview with Guido Levrini

(Interview performed in July 2016 for Exospace company, a satellite images visualization startup)

Exospace contacted Guido Levrini, ESA Copernicus Space Segment Programme Manager, to get insights on Copernicus programme initialization and operations phases.

– First, could you quickly introduce yourself? How long have you been working for ESA? How did you get into space industry? How did you arrive in the Copernicus programme?

I joined the European space Agency in 1995, after some 12 years of work in industry. At ESA I worked on the Envisat project, with the responsibility for the microwave instruments and for the calibration and validation activities of all instruments. I kept this position until the end of the Envisat Commissioning and Validation phase, in December 2002. From 2003 onwards, I worked on the preparation of what at the time was called the GMES programme (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) and has now become Copernicus. Within Copernicus, my first assignment was as Sentinel-1 project manager and subsequently I became responsible for the entire space segment, up to date. This means I am responsible for the development of all Sentinels.

– How did the Copernicus project start? What is the rationale behind this comprehensive Earth Observation (EO) system?

Copernicus started from the awareness of the economic development potential and of the societal role that operational Earth Observation from space could have had if a comprehensive system would be developed around three over-arching principles:

1 – comprehensive and frequent observations

2 – easy access to the data

3 – long-term continuity and guarantee of the observation infrastructure

Principle 1 led to the definition of a number of complementary observation capabilities (provided by the families of Sentinel satellites), each of one was defined around the key requirement of minimising the observation revisit time. As a result, all Sentinels are characterised by a very large swath and all constantly generate a large amount of data.

Principle 2 led to the adoption of a free and open data policy.

Principle 3 has determined the physionomy of the programme as a collection of series of satellite families rather than one-off satellites, as it was usually the case beforehand. This means, for instance, that currently satellites are being developed that will ensure observation capability (for each family of observation) well beyond 2030.  Providing the guarantee that the measurement infrastructure will be maintained in the long run is the key pre-condition that allows the private sector to invest in developing services based on these data.

– How were the specifications (instruments, revisit time etc) were decided? Were there contact with would-be downstream users?

Copernicus is a user-driven system. This means that the key user requirements were derived in consultation with the users, institutional and scientific, and also as a result of a gap analysis, an exercise aimed at assessing which observation capabilities were already provided by existing systems and which ones needed to be assured in the long term.

– Could you describe how mission pre-analysis happened? How were target orbits chosen? Was this choice impacted by laser communications with EDRS system? Did orbit choice impact spacecraft design?

The mission pre-analysis prioritised the provision of optimised continuity (via a series of dedicated satellites rather than a singular large one) of the Envisat-like measurements. We also needed to provide Europe with a dedicated land observing mission, modeled on the US Landsat paradigm.

The orbits were optimised for each mission to guarantee the shortest possible revisit time, in line with the users’ needs. The addition of EDRS – which came only later with respect to the early definition of the Sentinels – enhanced the timeliness of the observations rather than conditioning the orbit selection.

– Did ESA and European Commission manage to strike the right balance between having a comprehensive EO system and not compete too much with the private sector?

I do believe so.  The space component of Copernicus is indeed based on a series of dedicated assets, called Sentinels. But Copernicus is not limited to the Sentinels;  alongside the Sentinels, Copernicus is constituted by a large number of what we call ‘Contributing Missions’. These are either existing or planned space systems, both from the public as well from the private sector. Wherever an observing capability was either available or planned, we stayed away from it and did not duplicate it with one of the Sentinels.

A remarkable illustration in point is represented by the high-resolution systems, both optical as well as radar. In order not to compete with the offer from existing systems (some of which privately funded and operated) the resolution of both Sentinel-1 (radar) and Sentinel-2 (optical) was limited to about 10 m.

– Copernicus used fixed-price contracts with industry, which has enabled low costs overgrowth. Do you think that should become a standard for all public space projects, including rocket launches?

Fixed price contracts are the rule rather than the exception at the European Space Agency. The secret to avoid (or at least contain) cost overrun is in a mix of good practices – stability of the requirements, good technology preparation, good oversight and, first and foremost, quality and competence of the key people.

My view is that fixed price contracts help achieving such objective but they are not, per sé, in absence of the other ingredients mentioned above, the magical recipe.

– Do we have already operational services powered by Copernicus input or services due to enter operations on the short term (1 year)?

Copernicus services are in operation since several years. Of course the progressive arrival of the Sentinels has boosted their performance. From the initial three main services (emergency, land, maritime monitoring) we now have six thematic domains (atmosphere monitoring, climate change, security), listed at:

– Copernicus programme is already generating petabytes of data, what % of the overall budget is spent on the IT infrastructure? Is all data open access? Do EU companies have priority over US ones?

All Copernicus data (i.e. Sentinels satellites core products) and Copernicus information (i.e. Copernicus Services higher level products) are available under a full, free and open data policy. The terms of reference for use of Copernicus data and information can be found online at

Do EU companies have priority over US ones?

As indicated, the Copernicus data and information is freely available online for any user irrespective of their country of origin. Currently between 15 and 20% of the Sentinels operations budget is dedicated to the provision of ICT infrastructure for data dissemination.

– When the satellites reach the end of their life, will they be replaced automatically? If not, what criteria will be used to make a decision?

Each Sentinel has a guaranteed lifetime of 7 years and carries enough fuel to operate for a total of 12 years, at the end of which it will be de-orbited and replaced by a new Sentinel (e.g. Sentinel-1A and -1B, already in orbit, will be replaced respectively by Sentinel-1C and -1D, both under construction).

The C and D units will be ready earlier than the nominal 12 years of operation of the corresponding A and B models, such that – should the A or B  Sentinels show serious signs of degradation after the first 7 years of operation – they may be replaced earlier than 12 years after launch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s