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Europe’s largest and most expensive satellite began its mission to assess the health of the world today.

Envisat — which blasted off aboard a giant Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana — carries 10 instruments that will give scientists new insights into the state of the planet’s land, oceans and atmosphere.

A great deal was riding on the launch: 13 European countries plus Canada have invested €2.3 billion in the satellite, which weighs over eight tons and measures 10m in length.

Data from the satellite — which will be made available to scientists across the globe through the Internet — will provide vital information about climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer. It will also allow the monitoring of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods.

“The satellite is quite unique,” says Steven Briggs of the European Space Agency (ESA). “It will give planet Earth a real health check.”

Envisat is a “critical development,” says Adigun Ade Abiodun, Senior Special Assistant to the Nigerian President on Space Science and Technology. “The information it will provide will be invaluable in many aspects of development —
whether in Europe, Africa or other parts of the developing world.”

He adds: “It will give useful information in terms of agriculture, development and planning. Information from satellites can be a solution to many problems of the world.”

Envisat’s launch was originally planned for last October, but was put back after an Ariane 5 rocket put two satellites into the wrong orbit in July.

But today’s launch passed without hitch, blasting off right on schedule at 1.07 am GMT. “Everything has been not just perfect but ‘pluperfect’,” said Paula Freedman of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) at an event today in London to mark the launch.

The satellite will circle the Earth once every 100 minutes at an altitude of 800 km, sending an unprecedented amount of environmental information down to teams of scientists across the world.

Indeed, some researchers are concerned that many countries will lack the scientific expertise to analyse the information. “One of my worries is that we’re going to be overwhelmed with the kind of data we’ve never had before,” says John Lawton of NERC.

The 10 instruments on board Envisat — an abbreviation of Environmental Satellite — will be turned on and tested during the next six months. The first data will be made public in three week’s time.

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Photo credit: ESA