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article imageESA’s new Biomass satellite to measure Earth’s precious resources

By Robert Myles     May 9, 2013 in Science
The European Space Agency (ESA) announced Monday, the selection of ‘Biomass’ as the subject of its seventh Earth Explorer mission. The planned satellite will measure, to great accuracy, biomass and carbon stored in the world’s forests.
The ESA selected Biomass as the topic for what will be the European Space Agency’s seventh mission in the Earth Explorer series from three candidates. The Biomass mission is aimed at mapping and monitoring one of the Earth’s most precious resources — its forests.
The Biomass Earth Explorer will use P-band radar measurements, the longest radar wavelengths, previously used by NASA on a number of missions, but optimised for determining the amount of biomass and carbon in Earth’s plant life, to the greatest degree of accuracy yet seen.
The information returned by the Biomass satellite is expected to help scientists better understand the role forests play in the Earth’s carbon cycle and in climate change. Particularly in the tropics, measuring Biomass to a reliable degree of accuracy has, in the past, proved problematic.
Better knowledge of the tropical forest biomass also has a crucial part to play in implementing an international effort known as the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. The object of REDD+ is to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and land degradation in developing countries.
Additionally, the Biomass mission will be able to map the elevation of Earth’s terrain under dense vegetation. Not only will this return data on subsurface geology but it also has implications for gaining greater knowledge of sub-polar and sub-glacial terrain. It will permit estimates to be made of glacier and ice-sheet velocities, knowledge critical to a better understanding of ice-sheet mass loss as the Earth warms.
The mission launch date for Biomass has been pencilled in for 2020.
Commenting on the ESA’s Biomass announcement, Volker Liebig, Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes, said, “Biomass is an innovative new addition to the Earth Explorer satellite series. It will play an important role in quantifying forest biomass – information necessary to better understand the carbon cycle.”
On the finances for the mission at a time when most of Europe is facing austerity with widespread cuts in governments’ expenditure, Mr. Liebig had this to say, “The Earth Observation Programme Board today gave its full approval to the selection of Biomass but has also requested that ESA ensures the best value for money to Member States by confirming implementation of the mission when the full industrial proposal is available. This shows the importance attached to the efficient execution of the mission by European industry in times where programme finance is under pressure.”
The ESA’s series of Earth Explorer missions are satellites specifically developed to further a better understanding of what makes the Earth tick. There are three current Earth Explorers in orbit together providing a better insight into the Earth’s cryosphere — its polar and glacial regions — and also Earth’s gravity and its soil, moisture and ocean salinity. Future Earth Explorer missions are planned to examine the Earth’s magnetic field, wind systems and how clouds and aerosols affect Earth’s radiation budget — the amount of radiation Earth receives from space and re-radiates back into space.
More about European space agency, Biomass, tropical biomass, Rainforest, biomass satellite
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