Space Missions for the Environment

18 June 2020

Extreme weather events were responsible for much devastation to many regions of our planet in 2019 and these events can be largely attributed to the effects of climate change. They range from excessive rainfall, coastal flooding, heatwaves, drought and forest fires - such as the recent fires in Australia.

According to the United Nations, between the period of 1998–2017 the direct economic losses from disasters were estimated at almost USD 3 trillion and climate-related and geophysical disasters claimed an estimated 1.3 million lives. With greenhouse gas emissions rising at a rate much faster than anticipated, more ambitious plans and accelerated actions are needed.

Satellites are one of the most vital tools to better understand our planet. They enable us to capture a global view of what is happening across the planet. This gives us the ability to monitor events in real-time and look for trends in changes to key climate change indicators such as the size of the polar icecaps. Academia, government agencies and industry are joining forces like never before to design increasingly accurate instruments and satellites to improve environmental surveillance and generate reliable data, filling in the gaps of our understanding for informed decision making.

The first climate satellite was launched in 1959, Vanguard II, and was the first weather satellite, designed to measure cloud coverage and the density of the atmosphere. The Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS), launched in 1984, provided an early insight into how human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, affect the planet’s radiation balance, and helped discover the hole in the ozone layer. A further addition to this network of global satellites was the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-3A, which launched in 2016. The satellite was designed to collate data on ocean surface temperature and map the extent and topography of ice.

These satellites have been collecting data to monitor our planet’s ecosystems in a way that could not be achieved by any other means. This space activity is known as Earth Observation or Remote Sensing and is now increasingly being carried out by advanced small satellites and nanosatellites.

Nanosatellites, like our CubeSats, have demonstrated impressive spacebased capabilities stretching across a vast range of applications. The low-cost, high performance nature of CubeSats is opening up access to space for small countries, institutions and commercial organisations. When deployed as a fleet these cutting-edge small satellites can be used to provide near-real time global coverage and measurements.Applications

AAC Clyde Space have recently delivered a 3U scientific CubeSat, PICASSO (Pico-Satellite for Atmospheric and Space Science Observations), an ESA (European Space Agency) earth observation demonstration mission, which will map the ozone in the stratosphere and measure electron density and temperature in the plasma around the satellite.

The Ozone in the high atmosphere is critical for life on Earth as it shields the Sun’s UV radiation, so accurate and timely information about its density is critical for humanity. PICASSO aims to show that such measurements can be successfully done with very small satellites.

The Earth’s oceans are a vast ecosystem that represents some 99 per cent of the Earth’s living volume and delivers numerous benefits to humanity. It is known that climate change is altering the sea concentrations, riverflow and causing costal erosion in turn threatening the survival of certain ecosystems. Our oceans are also subject to neglect and pollution which, if left unchecked, could be devasting for the future of our planet. Spacebased remote sensing provides a means of observing our oceans which would otherwise be impossible using planes and ships alone.

Sustained ocean color monitoring is vital to understanding the marine ecosystem. It has been identified as an Essential Climate Variable (ECV) and is a vital parameter in understanding long-term climate change. Furthermore, observations can be beneficial in observing oil spills, harmful algal blooms and the health of fisheries.

AAC Clyde Space are part of the SOCON project (Sustained Ocean Color Observations using Nanosatellites), a collaboration between the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), Cloudland Instruments and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, to construct, launch and operate 2-SeaHawk CubeSats with HawkEye Ocean Color Sensors. The first satellite, Seahawk-1, was launched in 2019.

The aim of the project is to observe the changing biology of the ocean surface and these first two spacecraft are a precursor to a possible constellation of SeaHawk satellites which would provide continuous measurement of ocean color data. Seahawk is a follow-on mission from the highly successful SeaWiFS (Sea-Viewing Wide field-of-View Sensor) mission, launched in 1997. Over 20 years on, Seahawk is able to replicate the performance of the SeaWiFS mission except it is approximately 100 times smaller, lighter and cheaper.

The two identical AAC Clyde Space built SeaHawk spacecraft carry a cutting-edge multispectral imager called ‘HawkEye’ to perform Ocean Colour monitoring. The data will be integrated into NASA’s SeaWiFS Data Analysis System (SeaDAS) and will be distributed worldwide by the NASA Ocean Biology Distributed Active Archive Center at Goddard Space Flight Center. The data gathered by SeaHawk will enable greater understanding of the marine food chain, oceanic climate, fisheries and pollution phenomena. This information will be vital to our ability to monitor and support the health and the and sustainability of our oceans.

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