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Satellite images for all: 40 years of National Point of Contact

For forty years, the National Point of Contact has been providing satellite image data from the European Space Agency to Swiss customers in a low-threshold manner. Find out here why this link between space and Earth was established in 1981.

03.06.2021 | frf

ERS-1 in orbit (source: ESA)

The Swiss National Point of Contact (NPOC) was set up in 1981. Based at the Federal Office of Topography, swisstopo, it was founded with the aim of facilitating access to satellite data from the European Space Agency ESA for Swiss customers. 

The emergence of the Swiss NPOC was closely linked to the ERS-1 (European Remote Sensing Satellite), an ambitious European space programme. For the first time, it launched European satellites into space without the support of the USA and made measurement data available to a wide range of customers.

Oil production, tanker disasters, climate research: satellite data around 1980

In 1957, the Soviet Union sent the first satellite into orbit, Sputnik, thus ushering in the space age. In addition to the superpowers of the USSR and USA, European states also wanted to explore and develop space. With this goal in mind, the European Space Research Organisation was founded in 1962 and merged with the newly founded European Space Agency ESA in 1975. Switzerland was a founding member of both organisations and was extremely active in European spaceflight from the very beginning.

Artificial satellites were probably the most attractive technology to emerge from the space age for scientific, economic and military applications. Immediately after its creation in 1975, the ESA started work on its first Earth observation satellite, ERS-1, which was to be followed by a second satellite, ERS-2, with a slightly different orbit. In 1991 and 1995 respectively, the Agency finally launched the two radar satellites into space. 

Great hopes were pinned on the cosmic Earth observation programme. They were an expression of the economic, ecological and scientific challenges facing Europe and the world around 1980.

The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 highlighted Europe's dependence on non-European fuel suppliers and pushed the price of oil to new heights. In the North Sea, therefore, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Norway in particular began large-scale exploitation of maritime oil and gas deposits. According to an ESA report of 17 February 1981, satellite data promptly delivered promised to facilitate the construction and operation of the production platforms.

In addition to this economic argument for the relevance of satellite data, ERS-1 was also associated with ecological hopes. For example, the satellite was supposed to provide information on the spread of an oil spill every three hours, in the event of oil tanker accidents. The shipwrecks of the oil tankers Urquiola (1976) and Amoco Cadiz (1978) near the Spanish and French coasts respectively dramatically demonstrated the vulnerability of maritime ecosystems.

Sinking of the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz, 1978: satellite data promised to provide important support in the fight against oil pollution (source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Scientifically, ERS-1 promised to make an important contribution to the study of climate, polar ice and the oceans. In combination with research ships, buoys, radiosondes and other data sources, the satellite was supposed, in particular, to track down man-made global warming. The fears of ESA experts that the polar regions could warm up by 4-8 degrees Celsius by 2030 if CO2 emissions double appear to be unchanged today.

Swiss participation in the European satellite programme

Oil platforms, tanker disasters, melting polar ice caps: the ESA satellite programme promised to make an important contribution to the analysis and resolution of major contemporary problems. For a landlocked country like Switzerland, however, the maritime applications of ERS-1 were of limited use. At the same time, each country was free to decide whether to participate in the mission and thus also to share some of the costs. In July 1981, the Federal Commission for Outer Space Affairs therefore instructed the Remote Sensing Working Group to submit an assessment on the question of whether participation in ERS-1 was at all desirable for Switzerland by 1 October of the same year.

The recommendation of the Remote Sensing Working Group, in which experts from the private sector, science and administration were represented, was unambiguous. The panel concluded that the ESA satellite programme was extremely attractive for Switzerland, despite its focus on maritime applications. ERS was not an isolated individual project, but rather a long-term programme that would soon also include land satellites. Satellite images with a resolution of 10 metres per pixel could be of great use for surveying soil moisture and melting snow as well as for inventories of agriculture and forestry. Another advantage of the ERS satellites was that they could collect data using microwaves and thus operate independently of the weather and time of day. This represented an immense advantage over aerial photographs, which could only be taken during daylight and clear weather.

The Remote Sensing Working Group proposed to raise two concerns in the interests of Switzerland: on the one hand, there should be a stronger focus on land applications in future ESA satellite missions, and on the other, the establishment of National Points of Contact should be promoted. This was the only way of ensuring the rapid transfer of satellite data to private, commercial and scientific customers.

On 7 October 1981, the Federal Council decided on Switzerland's participation in ERS-1 on the basis of these recommendations. This also laid the foundations for the Swiss NPOC at the Federal Office of Topography.

NPOC: low-threshold access to satellite imagery and data

A central aspect of the ERS-1 mission was the timely, low-threshold and cost-effective distribution of satellite data to all interested parties. Data reception was to be possible anywhere in the world: any receiving station that was technically compatible could receive the data immediately and directly and thus have “direct read capability”. This possibility was also available to countries not participating in the ERS programme. Moreover, the data was to be accessible to buyers of all backgrounds - private, commercial, scientific or governmental. ESA thus aimed to achieve as free a flow of satellite data as possible.

In order to achieve the goal of free data dissemination, National Points of Contact were established in many European countries. They acted as links between the ESA and the end customers of the respective country. In Switzerland, it had already become clear by the end of the 1970s that the NPOC should be based at the Federal Office of Topography, since the technical expertise was available there and institutional stability was guaranteed. A contract between the ESA and the Swiss Confederation sealed this decision on 30 March 1982.

Although the headquarters of the NPOC have since been located at swisstopo, scientific institutions soon became an integral part of them. Between 1986 and 2001, the Institute for Communication Technology of the ETH Zurich assisted the NPOC's customers with scientific questions; since 2001, the Remote Sensing Laboratories (RSL) of the University of Zurich have performed this task.

An example of the many possible applications of satellite imagery: visualisation of the different managements of agricultural land, Switzerland (source: UZH/NPOC/D. Fawcett)

The NPOC today

The NPOC began at swisstopo with the Federal Council decision of 7 October 1981. For forty years, it has been facilitating its clients' access to data from space. Over the decades, data from optical satellites (satellite image data) has become more relevant, while the distribution of data from radar satellites such as ERS-1 and ERS-2 (satellite data) has become less frequent. 

Today, a large part of the data supplied goes to offices within the federal administration, but private customers also obtain satellite images from the NPOC. The goal formulated in 1981 of providing data from space in a non-discriminatory manner from the ESA to Swiss end users continues to be the guiding principle. On request, however, the NPOC also offers analyses and interpretations of the satellite images ordered. For example, it participates in studies conducted by the Federal Office for Spatial Development, ARE, to investigate the development of sealed surfaces in rural areas, and, on behalf of the Federal Council and together with the Federal Office for the Environment, contributes to the monitoring and warning of mass movement hazards in Switzerland by means of RADAR satellite measurements.

These and other uses show: satellite image data forms an important basis for increasing knowledge about our country and our planet. For forty years, the NPOC has been helping to ensure that this valuable data is easily accessible.

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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern
+41 58 469 01 11


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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern

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