From dangerous droughts to extreme flooding, pervasive wildfires to more frequent typhoons, many of the effects of climate change are readily visible. But Germany’s space agency wants to capture the hidden damage—before it’s too late. This year, it launched the Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program (EnMAP) satellite mission, with a goal of providing granular insights that will help the world develop new ways to adapt.
As it orbits, EnMAP collects image data through small wavelength ranges invisible to the naked eye. Traditionally, pictures of Earth from space look blue and green—and that’s all. But EnMAP uses more than 250 colors across the electromagnetic spectrum—far beyond visible light—to produce incredibly precise data on water, vegetation and soil over large areas of the planet.
“We’re not just taking pictures in a few colors. We’re taking hyperspectral images of the surface of the Earth,” says EnMAP mission manager Sebastian Fischer of the German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Center, Bonn, Germany.
The highly sophisticated images and data from EnMAP’s spectrometers will allow scientists to reliably track changes to ecosystems over time—a quest that could lead to innovative measures for adapting to climate change.
With project funding from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action and scientific expertise from the German Research Centre for Geosciences, the German Aerospace Center started planning the €300 million exploratory scientific mission in 2006. Two years later, the project team began designing the satellite and hyperspectral device, and in 2020, OHB System AG, a German tech company, began building EnMAP.
But when a subsystem failure threatened the launch, the team’s innovative thinking and problem-solving skills rescued the mission. During rigorous testing before production, project leaders discovered a design glitch that forced them to quickly assemble a task force of engineers who could redesign a solution for flight models, Fischer says. They also sharply pivoted to rework the schedule, giving engineers enough time to complete their redesign without wreaking havoc on the project’s overall timeline.
"We had to perform two major adjustments in parallel in order to mitigate the problem,” Fischer says.
Even after EnMAP launched in April aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the team had to adapt to surprises. The biggest one? A cooling system flaw in one of the satellite subsystems forced mission leaders to switch to manual operation planning while engineers fixed the problem—meaning that other parts of the mission’s research needed to slow or pause.
“In order to solve these challenges, good communication between all teams involved was crucial,” Fischer says. “Because of the delays, we needed to concentrate on important tasks for finishing the commissioning in October—so there now will be some minor open actions at the beginning of the routine phase.” The mission’s routine operations phase began in November.
Ultimately, EnMAP could deliver earth-shattering capabilities. For example, it could detect crops under stress and identify the nutrients, such as nitrogen, that they lack. It could spot a toxic algal or phytoplankton bloom and determine the exact species causing it. And it could measure the amount of methane produced by offshore oil platforms.
And that’s just for starters. If the five-year exploratory mission lives up to its promise, scientists in Europe and the United States will operationalize the satellite by the end of this decade. That transition would be a game-changer: The longer the satellite collects data, the more dynamic the environmental impact will become.
“Scientists want continuous observations of large regions for 10 years or more—that would really help our understanding of our planet,” Fischer says.
Credit German Aerospace Center