Europe: Forecasting crop failures from space

Europe's multi-billion dollar earth-monitoring program could be a game changer for food production, experts say. The European Space Agency (ESA) this week launched Sentinel-2A — a satellite armed with technology that will more accurately forecast crop failures from space.

As part of the European Union (EU)'s 8 billion euro ($8.9 billion) environmental monitoring scheme – called Copernicus -- all of the satellite's data will be publicly available within three to four hours, Sentinel-2 Mission Manager Bianca Hoersch told CNBC.

It's a service that could be useful to both private businesses and universities.

"Small-to-medium-sized enterprises will be able to take the data and compete in business," Hoersch said. "For example, there's a whole market in precision farming."

The industry uses aerial imagery, GPS-guided grids and statistical information to pinpoint sections of farmland that need tending to, ultimately helping limit the nutrients used across the entire plot.

Satellite imagery from Sentinel-2A could be combined with on-the-ground knowledge to not only improve harvests, but more accurately measure fertilization and irrigation needs. It will also differentiate between crop types and their growth levels and use infared tools to determine whether plants are under water-stress far earlier, Hoersch said.

The satellite will orbit the earth every 90 minutes and cover every landmass every 10 days — which currently takes most satellites 15-30 days, Hoersch said. A one-hour flight of the satellite will cover a swath of 290 kilometers (180 miles) - about the length of Norway or Sweden.

Furthermore, next year's new Sentinel-2B will be able to cover the whole earth in under five days.

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