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Initiated in 1977 by France, SPOT was the first European Earth-observation satellite programme (SPOT comes from the French ‘Satellites Pour l’Observation de la Terre’). Between 1986 and 2002, five SPOT satellites were launched from Kourou. They subsequently delivered remarkable Earth imagery offering an excellent compromise between coverage—each image covers a square of 60 km or 120 km on a side—and ground resolution (10 m for SPOT 1 to SPOT 4, 2.5 m for SPOT 5).
This trail was first blazed by the United States in 1972 with the launch of Landsat-1. Where CNES innovated was in equipping the SPOT satellites with steerable mirrors to enable viewing on either side of the ground track, over a 950-km swath, and to acquire imagery from different angles for relief mapping, notably to generate digital terrain models.
In 1998, SPOT 4 was sent aloft with the first VEGETATION instrument, affording daily global coverage at a resolution of 1 km for monitoring plant cover. In 2002, CNES equipped SPOT 5 with an instrument able to acquire near-simultaneous stereopair imagery.
CNES is set to bring the programme to a close when it de-orbits SPOT 5 before the end of 2015, but Airbus Defence & Space is continuing the adventure with SPOT 6 and SPOT 7—launched in 2012 and 2014—and leveraging the operational applications nurtured by their predecessors. At CNES, the SPOT programme has left a remarkable legacy with the Pleiades satellites, offering a ground resolution of 70 cm, and the Helios military intelligence satellites.