The European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite has been cleared for takeoff, following nearly a year in limbo while the mission team awaited the go-ahead from a private launch company.
Originally expected to launch in 2008, SMOS has been in storage at Thales Alenia Space’s facilities in Cannes, France since last May, awaiting a launch appointment at the Russian Plesetsk Cosmodrome, north of Moscow. If all goes according to plan, the craft will now launch between July and October, the second ESA mission in a series of six designed to observe Earth from space and bolster an understanding of climate change. The first of the satellites in its new Living Planet Program, The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), is scheduled to go up March 16.
Over its lifetime of about 20 months, GOCE will map global variations in the gravity field – crucial for deriving accurate measurements of ocean circulation and sea-level change, both of which are affected by climate change.
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SMOS, circulating at a low orbit of around 750 km (466 miles) above the Earth, will be the first mission dedicated to mapping soil moisture and ocean salinity. Salinity in the oceans has a significant impact on ocean circulation, which in turn helps drive the global climate. Among other applications, understanding the salinity and temperature of the seas will lead to easier predictions of the zones where hurricanes intensify. A specialized radiometer has been developed for the mission that is capable of observing both soil moisture and ocean salinity by capturing images of emitted microwave radiation around the frequency of 1.4 GHz (L-band). SMOS will carry the first-ever, polar-orbiting, space-borne, 2-D interferometric radiometer. The mission is designed to last three years.
Here’s a rundown of the final four planned crafts in the series:
- ADM-Aeolus (Atmospheric Dynamics Mission), with a 2010 launch date, will collect data about the global wind profile to improve weather forecasting.
- CryoSat-2, set to launch in late 2009, will determine variations in the thickness of the Earth’s continental ice sheets and marine ice cover to further our understanding of the relationship between ice and global warming. CryoSat-2 replaces CryoSat, which was lost at launch in 2005.
- Swarm, due for launch in 2010, is a constellation of three satellites to study the dynamics of the magnetic field to gain new insights into the Earth system by studying Earth’s interior and its environment.
- EarthCARE (Earth Clouds Aerosols and Radiation Explorer), lanching in 2013, is a joint European-Japanese mission that aims to improve the representation and understanding of the Earth’s radiative balance in climate and numerical weather forecast models.