On April 8th the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its first mission dedicated to study the Earth’s ice from the polar orbit. The CryoSat-2 satellite will sent new information to improve our understanding of how ice is responding to climate change and what role it actually plays for global climate. It is expected this should help determine the effect of human activity on natural processes.
Such Earth Explorers are launched as a direct response to urgent issues identified by the scientific community and the mission’s objectives are to measure changes in the thickness of the vast ice sheets that cover Greenland and Antarctica and the exact measurement of the variations in the thickness of the relatively thin ice floating in the polar oceans. Satellites such as Envisat have been mapping the extend of the Earth’s ice cover for decades, but this mission should examine the ever-changing thickness of the polar ice.
“We are delivering the data the scientific community so badly needs to build a true picture of what is happening in the fragile polar regions,” said Richard Francis, ESA’s Project Manager, speaking on Wednesday from the Mission Control Team at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
CryoSat-1 was lost in 2005 after a launch failure; the replacement satellite was successfully launched on a Dnepr rocket provided by the International Space Company Kosmotras from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 15:57 CEST (13:57 UTC). 17 minutes later a signal from the Malindi ground station in Kenya confirmed CryoSat-2, built by a consortium led by EADS Astrium, had separated from its launcher. Further ground stations are located in Antarctica, Norway and Sweden.
This is a significant achievement for the ESA and its observation program. Within the last 12 months three Earth Explorer satellites have been placed in orbit. CryoSat-2 is transporting the first radar altimeter that will be able to overcome the difficulties encountered when measuring the thickness of floating sea ice and monitoring changes in the ice sheets on land. This highly sophisticated SAR/Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) was developed by Thales Alenia Space.
CryoSat-2 will reach latitudes of 88° in the polar orbit, coming closer to the poles than any earlier Earth observation satellites. Due to its positioning an additional area of about 4.6 million sq km can be observed by the satellite. It is hoped that with this state-of-the-art technology the relationship between climate and ice can be established and understood.
“We know from our radar satellites that sea ice extent is diminishing, but there is still an urgent need to understand how the volume of ice is changing,” said Volker Liebig, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes. “To make these calculations, scientists also need information on ice thickness, which is exactly what our new CryoSat satellite will provide. We are now very much looking forward to receiving the first data from the mission.”
While ground staff is busy controlling and overseeing the critical ‘Launch and Early Operations Phase’, the scientific community concerned with climate change and global warming is eagerly awaiting relevant data. Hopefully results and recommendations are ready in time for the climate summit 2010.