A British-built pollution monitoring satellite was launched into orbit on Friday.
It broke free of Earth’s gravity well while riding a modified Russian rocket designed to deliver a nuclear payload from near Moscow to the US mainland during the Cold War.
As part of the European Commission and European Space Agency’s (ESA) Copernicus project, the Dutch-designed satellite will map the distribution of harmful gases and aerosols in the atmosphere.
Named Sentinel-5P, the spacecraft successfully launched at 10.27am UK time from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome – a Russian spaceport 500 miles (800km) north of Moscow.
It rapidly disappeared into the thick autumn clouds near the Arctic Circle.
Described as a “precursor satellite mission” by the ESA, Sentinel-5P will “fill in the data gap and provide data continuity between the retirement of the Envisat satellite and NASA’s Aura mission and the launch of Sentinel-5”.
It is hoped Sentinel-5 Precursor – to use its full title – will ensure scientists do not miss anything if NASA’s Aura satellite fails before Europe’s next-generation devices are launched in 2021.
The satellite carries the state-of-the-art Tropomi instrument to trace gases and aerosols – including nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, methane, and carbon monoxide.
Information from the mission will be used through the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service for air quality forecasts, and the data will be free of charge and open to users worldwide.
The mission will be controlled by operators in Darmstadt, Germany, who will be monitoring the satellite’s systems to check they are healthy and functioning properly.
ESA director general Jan Woerner said: “Launching the sixth Sentinel satellite for the Copernicus programme is testament to the extensive competence we have here at ESA, from its moment of conception to well into operations.
“The Sentinel-5P satellite is now safely in orbit so it is up to our mission control teams to steer this mission into its operational life and maintain it for the next seven years or more.”