"The Earth Explorer missions are designed to address key scientific challenges identified by the science community blahblahblah breakthrough technology in observing techniques blabla peer-reviewed selection process blabla gives Europe an excellent opportunity for international cooperation blablabla"
The first satellite, GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer), was launched on March 17 2009. Its task is to provide precision measurements of the Earth's gravitational fields. The strength of the gravitational field of the Earth depends on the local density of the matter and thus contains geological information. The precision of these measurements is quite amazing. ESA's marketing department moreover lets us know that "the sleek, elegant aerodynamic design of GOCE immediately sets it apart from most other satellites." See illustration to the left. Book a test-drive at your nearest dealership.
The second satellite (see picture to the right) was launched November 2nd 2009. Dubbed SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity) it will provide global maps of (guess) soil moisture and ocean salinity with one of the purposes being to improve "extreme-event forecasting." I suppose "extreme event" is PR-speak for "natural disaster."
The third sattelite, CryoSat-2, is scheduled to launch on 8 April 2010. Its mission is to measure variations in the thickness of continental ice sheets. It was originally scheduled to launch Feb 25, but the launch was postponed due to technical problems. The website let us know the satellite "is currently being 'babysat' in the integration facilities by two team members."
The remaining three missions are in the planning phase. They contain Swarm: three satellites measuring the Earth's magnetic field to provide inside about the inner dynamics, ADM-Aeolus: measuring the wind-fields and hopefully contributing to improvements in weather forecasting, and EarthCARE: measuring Earth's radiative balance. To me EarthCARE sounds more like an immunization program by Doctors without Borders.
ESA is an international organization with 18 member states: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and Canada takes part in some projects under a cooperation agreement.
I find it amazing when I imagine what amount of knowledge and attention to details is necessary to put a satellite into orbit. I'm not even sure what I'm more impressed by, the "breakthrough technology" or the complexity of global collaboration and organization to make it possible.