Dual system for Earth observation

Its radar images of some of 2008’s biggest natural catastrophes, such as the Nargis cyclone in Myanmar, the earthquake in China and the Hannah and Ike hurricanes in Haiti were used by the United Nations and the humanitarian organizations involved in supporting the population. But these are just a few examples of the excellent operational capabilities of COSMO-SkyMed, the most ambitious Earth observation programme ever carried out by Italy to prevent environmental disasters, in terms of study of the Earth’s surface. 

COSMO-SkyMed is the first Earth satellite observation system conceived for a dual purpose, both civil and military. Its four satellites are its four “eyes”, capable of observing the Earth from space, meter by meter, day and night, under any weather conditions, with the purpose to foresee landslides and floods, coordinate rescues in the event of an earthquake or fires and monitor crisis areas from above. Developed by the Italian Space Agency in partnership with the Ministry of Defense, COSMO-SkyMed is based on a constellation of four identical satellites, equipped with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR), operating in the X-ray band (and therefore capable of observing through the clouds and in the absence of sunlight. The system is able to capture up to 450 photos of the Earth’s surface per day, which are equal to 1.800 radar images every 24 hours.

COSMO-Skymed’s real strength is its extraordinary flexibility of use. The eye of the radar can operate in spotlight (by focusing on an area of a few square kilometers and observing it with up to a one-meter resolution), stripmap (by observing a continuous strip of the Earth’s surface) or scanSAR (by covering a 200 km region on one side) mode. The response times, or the time needed to set up the constellation in order to obtain images of the desired area, are also very short: they range from 72 hours when operating in routine conditions to less than 18 hours in emergency conditions. Another strength is the short revisit time (or the time span between two observations of the same point), which is lower than 12 hours and allows to continuously monitor the evolution of the situation in a specific area. Currently, no satellite system can boast such advanced features. 

The manufacturing of COSMO-SkyMed has already allowed Italy to conclude important international agreements in the field of Earth observation, in particular with France and Argentina, in the military and civil sector. In the civil sector, Italy is currently working with Argentina to develop the SIASGE, Italian-Argentine System of Satellites for Emergency Management, which was born in 2005 from an agreement between the ASI and its Argentinian counterpart (CONAE). The first satellite of the constellation was launched on June 7th, 2007, from the U.S. base of Vandenberg, California, where the second satellite was also launched on December 9th, 2007. The third satellite was launched on October 25th, 2008. The system was completed on November 5th, 2010 (November 6th in Italy) with the launch of the fourth and last satellite, still from the U.S. base of Vandenberg, California. The second generation of the COSMO-SkyMed satellite is currently under development.

Advisory committee of non-Agency experts

By a decree signed on February 20th, 2015, the ASI’s president Roberto Battiston appointed an advisory committee of non-Agency experts for the first-generation and second-generation COSMO-SkyMed missions (CSK and CSG). This measure follows the relevant resolution licensed by the ASI’s board of directors on November 14th, 2014. The Committee, which includes representatives from the scientific community, institutional users and the European Space Agency (ESA), has the task to provide technical-scientific assessments and strategic support, by assisting the ASI during the development, implementation and operation of the missions, provided that they reflect the requirements of the users and their evolutions. This body is made up of seven members: professor Pierfrancesco Lombardo (president); professor Bernardo de Bernardinis; doctor Riccardo Lanari; doctor Nuno Miranda, engineer Paola Pagliara, professor Claudio Prati; doctor Betlem Rosich.

Industrial structure

The COSMO-SkyMed programme was developed in the framework of an industrial policy which is targeted at a broader and more qualified participation and enhancement of the national skill, and involves also small and medium-sized enterprises. The following team of companies is in charge of the implementation of the Programme: Alenia Spazio S.p.A., now Thales Alenia Space-Italia (TAS-I), in the role of first contractor and in charge of the turnkey supply of the entire System – Telespazio S.p.A., in charge of the manufacture and supply of the civil and military ground-based segment, as well as the monitoring infrastructure of the costellation – A significant number of small and medium-sized enterprises. – A limited number of European and U.S. suppliers.

The system

The COSMO-SkyMed includes a space segment and a ground-based segment. The space segment is made up of a 4-satellite constellation, equipped with high-resolution SAR (synthetic aperture radar) sensors operating in the X-ray band and equipped with a highly flexible and innovative acquisition and data transmission system. The ground-based segment is made up of infrastructures for the management and monitoring of the entire constellation and for the reception, storage, processing and distribution of products.

COSMO-SkyMed allows a global coverage of our planet, by operating under any weather and lighting (day/night) conditions, and provides geolocated images with a high spatial resolution and fast response times. The COSMO-SkyMed system has been conceived as a multi-mission system, capable of integrating with other space systems in order to meet the needs of a wide community of users, and can operate in each of the following three modes: 


Nominal operating mode, where the planning takes place every 24 hours.


Operating mode where the planning takes place every 12 hours. This mode allows to define the areas in which the requests for capturing images have an absolute priority.


Asynchronous operating mode, activated in exceptional circumstances, with the purpose to obtain an acquisition as soon as possible.

The COSMO-SkyMed system is capable of offering, on a planetary scale, totally innovative information to study and monitor the environment: the peculiar characteristics of the constellation and the ground-based segment, the high quality of products and their integrability with data of different nature, be it from satellites or not, allow for an increasing number of applications, with particular reference to the prevention, monitoring and management of natural and anthropic risks. The possibility to quickly change the planning of the acquisitions based on the requests by the final user and to operate under any weather and lighting conditions, the time spans for revisit of just a few hours and the delivery of processed products in a very short time make COSMO-SkyMed particularly suitable to provide important information, especially during the crisis phase, to those who plan and carry out the support and rescue operations and those who are in charge of damage assessment.

The COSMO-SkyMed constellation is capable of acquiring up to 1800 images per day.

Examples of applications

The prevention and management of environmental disasters

The data and products provided by the COSMO-SkyMed system represent a valuable and important tool to carry out studies on the precursor causes and phenomena of environmental disasters and to improve the monitoring and damage assessment capabilities in the case, for example, of landslides, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The continuous observation over time of a specific area, during the day and at night, also under cloudy conditions, allows to assess the surface deformations of the territory, by providing to the relevant bodies for risk management a new and valuable prevention and monitoring tool. 

The monitoring of oceans and coasts 

The COSMO-SkyMed satellites allow to obtain continuous and accurate information on the status of inland coasts, seas and waters, with the purpose to assess coastal erosion and pollution phenomena. Furthermore, the system constitutes a valuable support to control sea traffic.

The monitoring of agricultural and forest resources

The COSMO-SkyMed satellites’ability to use horizontally and vertically polarized signals, both in transmission and in reception, allows to improve land classification and crop monitoring during the growth stage, also with the aim to optimize harvests.  The possibility to control the forest heritage, whose destruction is very harmful to the quality of air and to the planet Earth, is particularly interesting..

The monitoring of buildings

The high geometric accuracy of the images captured by COSMO-SkyMed and the high spatial and temporal resolution provide us with a powerful tool to monitor the presence of new settlements and works or to monitor all the subsidence situations of the soil or subsoil, which frequently cause structural failures or collapses.  


It will be possible to conduct a new, high-resolution technical and thematic cartography thanks to the characteristics of the images provided by the COSMO-SkyMed system. The implementation of a highly accurate digital, three-dimensional model of the soil, which can be used in multiple applications, is of particular importance. 

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