Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ESA funds BIOMASS satellite to measure global forests

The European Space Agency recently selected this mission as its seventh Earth Explorers satellite, which will weigh the world's forests from space over a 5 year working life. Its work will allow the role of forests in the carbon cycle to be better understood, along with providing baseline data from which to assess the effects of deforestation and climate change. Slated for launch in 2020 and due to be equipped with a new kind of synthetic aperture radar, the decision is a timely one considering the state of the world's woodlands. The new radar makes use of wavelengths recently released for use by the International Telecommunications Union, based in Geneva, which allocates radio spectrum for use by diverse stakeholders.

It will measure the amount of carbon stored in forests, and its evolution through time, while skirting around the US military's set of space tracking radars in the USA, Greenland and the United Kingdom, which use the same segment of bandwidth. The Pentagon insists that the instrument be turned off whenever in line of sight of its radars, presumably in order to keep the nature of their emissions secret. That will blind the satellite to part of the Earth, but the most important changes in forests are happening further south and Europe and the USA are already well documented, so the core mission of exploring forests in more remote areas will not be overly affected. Negotiations with the US Department of Defence are ongoing.

Its birdseye view will enable global maps of much higher resolution than achieved so far, and is expected to deepen our understanding of the biosphere's interactions with the atmosphere and hydrospheres. This has long been a goal of the rapidly developing field of Earth Systems science. It will also assist conservation efforts following from the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative , and allow monitoring of reforestation and carbon offset projects. The impacts of fires and human encroachment will also be monitored.

Secondary goals include work on the upper atmosphere, subsurface geology in arid areas and motions of glaciers and ice caps.

It is due to be built by a consortium of Astrium UK and Thales Alenia, and be launched from the spaceport of Kourou in French Guyana (which also fires up Ariane and Soyuz rockets) by a lightweight Vega rocket.

Image credit: Malene Thyssen.



Press release: http://www.esa.int/For_Media/Press_Releases/ESA_s_next_Earth_Explorer_satellite

Mission statement: http://esamultimedia.esa.int/docs/EarthObservation/SP1324-1_BIOMASSr.pdf

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