A European mini-satellite launched this week will be able to keep a steady eye on Earth's vegetation as it hurtles through orbit, thanks to smart software developed in Canada.

Sherbrooke, Que.-based NGC Aerospace designed the software that makes the PROBA-V satellite capable of automatically maneouvering to maintain the right position and orientation as it takes images of the Earth.

The 140-kilogram, dishwasher-sized satellite was launched into orbit late Monday night aboard an Arianespace Vega rocket from the Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana, along with two other satellites, the ESA reported.

The satellite orbits 820 kilometres above the Earth's surface, passing over the equator each morning between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. local time. It images the Earth as it travels, completing an image of the entire surface every two days.

The images provide data about the growth and loss of plants, including crops and forests, as well as inland bodies of water. (The "V" in its name stands for vegetation.) The data will be used around the world for day-to-day tracking and monitoring of phenomena such as:

  • Extreme weather
  • Crop failures
  • Deforestation
  • Desertification
  • Inland water resources

PROBA-V launched into orbit late Monday night aboard an Arianespace Vega rocket from the Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana (Arianespace)

The data adds to the collection of images taken by two older satellites, SPOT-4, launched in 1998, and SPOT-5, launched in 2002, which is still operational. However, PROBA-V will produce images with a much higher spatial resolution.

The software developed by NGC Aerospace automatically tells the satellite how to adjust its movements in order to hold the cameras steady and keep them pointed at the right targets while it images the Earth.

The company said this increases the reliability and efficiency of the satellite while reducing its operating costs. The project was partly funded by the Canadian Space Agency and ESA's General Support Technology Program.

NGC Aerospace had previously contributed to two other ESA satellite missions — the Earth observation satellite PROBA-1, launched in 2001 and PROBA-2, which monitored solar activity. Those previous PROBA (Project for Onboard Autonomy) missions were primarily demonstrations to test systems that allow satellites to carry out certain functions without human intervention as well as other hardware, software and space environment instruments. PROBA-V will be the first in the series to start providing scientific data right from launch.

In addition to vegetation monitoring, PROBA-V has a number of side projects over the course of its 2 ½-year mission, including one to monitor air traffic around the globe from space and another to test a communication system that uses a gallium nitride — a relatively new semiconductor — in one of its amplifiers instead of the standard gallium arsenide.