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Powerful European Earth-observation satellite suffers anomaly in orbit

Sentinel-1a and b are the first in the family of Copernicus satellites launched by the European Space Agency.
Sentinel-1a and b are the first in the family of Copernicus satellites launched by the European Space Agency. (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

One of humanity's most powerful Earth-observing satellites is having some problems in orbit.

The Sentinel-1B radar satellite, part of the European Union's Copernicus Earth observation program, hasn't beamed home any data since suffering an anomaly on Dec. 23. And the problem appears to be relatively serious.

"Following the previous news on the Sentinel-1B anomaly that occurred on 23 December 2021, the resuming of the operations was carefully prepared, including the onboard configuration changes preventing the anomaly to occur again," Copernicus team members wrote in an update Monday (opens in new tab) (Jan. 10).

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"However, during the preparation of the recovery operations, it became clear that the initial anomaly was a consequence of a potential serious problem related to a unit of the power system of the Sentinel-1B satellite," they added. "The operations performed over the last days did not allow to reactivate so far a power supply function required for the radar operations. Further investigations to identify and remedy the root cause will be performed over the next days."

Sentinel-1B launched to a polar orbit in April 2016, two years after its twin, Sentinel-1A. Together, the two satellites have been providing continuous, high-resolution radar mapping of Earth for a variety of users. Each satellite is expected to gather data for at least seven years, and each has enough fuel onboard to operate for 12 years, according to a mission description (opens in new tab).

The Sentinel-1 pair aren't the only Copernicus spacecraft to get off the ground. The Copernicus constellation also consists of two Sentinel-2 satellites, two Sentinel-3 spacecraft, the Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite and Sentinel-6A, which lifted off in November 2020. More are scheduled to launch in the coming years as well.

Copernicus also incorporates data gathered by a number of "contributing missions," which are operated by a variety of different organizations.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab)

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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.