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Cryosat-2 - A measure of Europe's ambition

Jonathan Amos | 11:25 UK time, Friday, 9 April 2010

A perfect day. Cryosat-2, Europe's ice mission, is finally circling the Earth.

Cryosat's Dnepr launchAfter losing the original mission on launch in 2005, the European Space Agency (Esa) returned for a second go with a near-identical satellite. And this time, the modified nuclear missile entrusted with delivering the spacecraft to orbit did its job brilliantly.

Controllers wanted the satellite injected into an orbit some 717km above the Earth. The Dnepr put Cryosat virtually on the button. It actually went in 108m higher than requested.

A discussion will now be had as to whether the orbit is allowed to degrade naturally to the optimum height or if some propellant is sent surging through the spacecraft's British thrusters to force the issue.

Even if some of Cryosat's consumables are expended, there will be plenty in reserve to serve what engineers hope - expect - to be a long mission. They'll be disappointed if they don't get 10 years out of this spacecraft. It's quite amazing how long these endeavours now last.

That's all good news for the scientists who've had to wait more than 10 years to get their hands on Cryosat's ice data.

The mission's radar altimeter will run a tight path over the poles, returning not just unprecedented information on the thickness and shape of Arctic and Antarctic ice, but a new view of what's happening to ocean waters no longer covered by ice.

At the moment we have virtually no idea how the Arctic Ocean is responding to the 11%-per-decade decline in summer ice coverage. It's an important issue. If winds are allowed to work on open water, they may change the pattern of currents and that could have climate consequences far beyond the polar north.

Scientists will push the radar instrument on Cryosat very hard. 2005's enforced delay means researchers have had more time to learn how to interpret the altimetry data.

An intensive validation campaign has been conducted in the intervening years which involved running an instrument somewhat similar to Cryosat's on an aircraft, and sending people into the polar regions to take manual measurements for comparison.

As a result, the Cryosat team will now be able to see very fine detail in the radar data, including the seasonal snow layers in the ice and the disjointed and fractured ridges associated with the multi-year sea-ice, the stuff that is most resistant to melting.

Cryosat is important because it is now the only dedicated ice mission in orbit after the failure last year of the American Icesat mission. It's Europe that's keeping watch.


It gives you a sense now for the scale of ambition in these parts for Earth observation (EO). We are in a midst of a golden age.

I've attached a tool to this page which allows you to browse the high-profile missions Europe intends to launch in the coming decade - more than 20 spacecraft approved and funded to the tune of several billion euros.

It includes the scientific "Earth Explorer" missions like Cryosat which are run by Esa. There are at least four more to add to the three already in orbit. We may even squeeze an eighth mission in before the end of the decade.

The next Esa Earth Explorer, AeolusConsider also the meteorological missions that Esa and the weather satellite agency Eumetsat conduct together. Four Meteosats will launch this decade - two second-generation spacecraft and two very innovative third-generation platforms.

There are two Metop polar-orbiting weather satellites under a dustsheet somewhere in Germany that are built and ready to fly; and that's before a decision is made (probably in the next 12 months) to commission their follow-ons. The first next-generation Metop will launch no earlier than 2018, just off my chart.

And then there is the Sentinel series, an ongoing sequence of Earth observers commissioned as part of a joint EU/Esa project to acquire long-term data-sets, not just for environmental monitoring but for security purposes as well - natural disaster mitigation and response, etc.

My EO rocket tool is - how shall we say? - in "beta" format, so if you think I've missed an important mission or seriously mistimed the launch date, let me know.

I've stuck with the big pan-European missions, the ones anchored in Esa. There is no space for example for those predominantly national missions which have wide participation. I'm thinking of the likes of the French-led Jason-3 mission to measure ocean height and which will launch in 2013.

Cloud over EuropeI'm also very interested to see how Europe uses the International Space Station as an EO platform. The Japanese are doing this. They have an experiment sitting on the Kibo module studying ozone and other trace gases.

Esa wants to hang similar experiments off its Columbus lab. The ISS allows you to be reactive and innovative, flying sensors that demonstrate new techniques. If they don't quite deliver on their promise, need a tweak or simply break down - you can take them off and bring them back to Earth.

If a fully formed satellite like Cryosat has an issue - that's it.

A few closing thoughts.

The desire expressed by President Obama in his 2011 budget request to re-invigorate Nasa's Earth observation programme [1Mb] means we really are heading for exciting times. The Americans can bring a huge amount of money to bear on the issue. We've all obsessed about Constellation these past weeks and overlooked the EO commitment (a budget of $1.8bn for 2011, rising to $2.2bn in 2015). Esa and Nasa will have a pow-wow in the next few days on how they can better tie their EO programmes together.

And then there is the newly established UK Space Agency. It, too, intends to have a big Earth observation focus at its International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) at Harwell in Oxfordshire, the site of a new Esa technical facility.

The UKSA (I still don't know how to say it) wants the ISIC to be a hub for British EO expertise, involved in both controlling spacecraft and in processing their data and products. The UK Space Agency "expects" Britain to lead the Sentinel 5-Precursor mission [1Mb] later this decade.

5-Precusor will do atmospheric composition monitoring. It will be a pollution eye-in-the-sky.

Watch this space.


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