You know how Iron Man gets a constant, real-time feed from instruments monitoring every aspect of his surroundings? That's cool, but it's also fiction. The Copernicus earth observation program might not top Iron Man's suit, but if you multiply Copernicus' cool by the reality coefficient, it rocks!
Last week the European Space Agency successfully sent the newest member of the Copernicus Sentinel satellite team into orbit. The new satellite, Sentinel-5P (aka S5P), will collect data on earth's atmosphere with a special interest in the potent climate change gas, methane, as well as substances such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
This data serves many ends: monitoring will help scientists better understand atmospheric processes such as how the hole in the ozone layer reacts to trace chemicals in the atmosphere. It can help hold countries to their pollution reduction pledges, by providing real data on the amounts of certain pollutants in the air -- and reduce deaths attributed to these pollutants, estimated to exceed the number of deaths from AIDS and malaria combined, as well as guide strategic policies related to managing climate change.
The "P" in this satellite's name actually stands for "precursor" because the S5P is a stop-gap satellite, intended to ease the transition as older satellites go off-line and until the planned launch of the Sentinel 5 mission in 2021, which will further extend the monitoring of atmospheric composition.
The Sentinel-5P works its magic thanks to the TROPOMI (TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument), the "most advanced multispectral imaging spectrometer to date." The spectrometer reads the sunlight reflected back into space from the earth and particles in its atmosphere. It can detect the unique fingerprints of target gases. The Tropomi detects a wide range of gases thanks to its ability to read many wavelengths, from the ultraviolet and visible (270–500 nm) to the near-infrared (675–775 nm) and shortwave infrared (2305–2385 nm) spectral bands.
S5P joins a network of important earth observation missions, run by NASA as well as ESA. These guardians of the galaxy (or at least the part of the galaxy we depend on for life) help forecast weather, manage emergencies, map the lands and oceans, and even assess the health of our planet's vegetation.
All of the data gathered by the Copernicus program is available for free.