By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) - An unmanned Vega rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Monday to put a sophisticated Earth-watching satellite into orbit, a European Space Agency webcast showed.
Flying for the fifth time, the four-stage Vega rocket, lifted off at 9:52 p.m. EDT (0152 GMT) carrying Europe’s Sentinel-2A satellite, the newest member of the multibillion-euro Copernicus Earth-observation project.
From its orbital perch 488 miles (786 km) above Earth, Sentinel-2A is designed to take high-resolution, color 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 colors than other Earth imaging spacecraft, such as France's Spot 5 or the U.S. Landsat satellites.
"We have not just all the colors that are visible, but also infrared, which is very good for monitoring vegetation," Volker Liebig, director of ESA's Earth Observation program, told Reuters.
Sentinel-2A is designed to capture 180-mile (290-km) 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 programs, 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.
Liebig said ESA was actively working with international programs that seek to forecast harvests so the United Nations World Food Program can anticipate need and avoid shortages, which can cause spikes in food prices.
"When you have the information two months in advance, you can organize 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 8.4 billion euros ($9.46 billion) for the Copernicus program through 2020.
(Additional reporting by Maria Sheahan in FRANKFURT; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)