Within the EU-led Copernicus programme, ESA, as a main partner, is the coordinator and system architect of the Space Component, which is composed of dedicated satellite missions called Sentinels, specifically developed by ESA for the needs of Copernicus users, and of “Copernicus Contributing Missions” (CCMs). These are owned or operated by European, national or multinational organisations that also make data available to the programme.
It was created in 2010 with the EU Regulation establishing the Copernicus programme (still GMES at that time) and subsequently adopted in 2013 with the delegated Regulation no. 1159 on access to data and information. It continued with the 2014 Copernicus Regulation and with the 2021 EU Space programme Regulation, which implements a free, full and open Copernicus data and information provision and access scheme. This fully applies to the data coming directly from the Sentinels missions.
The thematic information products from the Copernicus services are also made available on a full, free and open basis. They are produced using Sentinel data complemented, where needed, with Very High Resolution (VHR) or other Earth Observation (EO) data coming from the CCMs. The key elements of this data policy can be summarised in the following points: 1) there are no restrictions on the use (commercial and non-commercial) nor on users (European and non-European); 2) a free of charge version of any dataset is always available on the Copernicus dissemination platforms; and 3) data and information are available worldwide without limitation in time.
In order to know if the actual data policy scheme is still the most adequate for the Copernicus objectives, the European Commission published the results of a study on alternative options that could improve the current legal, technical, economic and strategic elements of the Copernicus free, full and open data policy in 2019. The conclusion was that the current data policy was still the better option. This data policy scheme has been implemented mainly to stimulate the European EO services market growth, in particular the downstream sector, with a view to enabling job creation, and to support the European research, technology and innovation communities.
But even if a long-term stability in data policy may be considered essential to allow the commercial sector to establish and consolidate business strategies, for the first time in 2021, the EU Space Programme Regulation contemplated the possibility of different mechanisms for non-EU Member States to access Copernicus data beyond the common dissemination facilities.
On top of that, the arrival of the future dedicated satellite missions (Expansion and Next Generation Sentinels) and the emergence of new entrepreneurs and commercial initiatives for the evolution of the current CCMs, might pose a challenge concerning data access conditions. Therefore, the EC, representing the EU and ESA, will need to jointly discuss the evolution of the Copernicus data policy mechanism to ensure that the main objectives of the programme are safeguarded.