Mission EarthCARE: SpaceX Is Ready to Launch UK-Built Climate Detective Satellite

28th May 2024
Mission EarthCARE: SpaceX Is Ready to Launch UK-Built Climate Detective Satellite

Excitement fills the air as ESA’s Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) mission prepares to make its debut aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Tomorrow, on the 28th of May, 2024, marks a milestone in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Earth’s atmosphere.

Among ESA’s Earth Explorer missions, EarthCARE shines as a beacon of innovation and discovery. It’s not just about reaching the skies; it’s about peering into the depths of our planet’s climate system. By probing the elusive roles of clouds and aerosols, EarthCARE aims to clear the fog of uncertainty surrounding climate change dynamics. What secrets hide beyond the clouds, poised to be unveiled by EarthCARE’s vigilant observation?

UK at the Forefront of EarthCARE development

ESA’s EarthCARE satellite
ESA’s EarthCARE satellite is being encapsulated within the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: ESA 

The project has taken more than 30 years to get off the ground after being proposed by the University of Reading in 1993. The United Kingdom stands at the forefront of the EarthCARE mission:

  • Airbus Defence and Space UK spearheaded the development of the satellite base platform.
  • Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) plays a pivotal role by supplying the MSI instrument, a cutting-edge device equipped with VNS and thermal infrared cameras.
  • Thales Alenia Space UK (TAS UK) is responsible for developing the MSI Instrument Control Unit, housed within the satellite.
  • TAS UK contributed the Broadband Radiometer instrument, complemented by the Broadband Radiometer Telescope Assembly from RAL Space.
  • GMV-UK, Telespazio UK, and CGI UK are actively engaged in crucial activities, with CGI notably producing onboard software for multiple instruments.

How Is It Going to Change Our Weather Forecasts?

The Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer, or EarthCARE, is a groundbreaking satellite mission designed to unravel the mysteries of Earth’s clouds and aerosols. It’s the result of collaboration between European and Japanese agencies (ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)), involving over 20 UK organisations.

What the project is all about? Aerosols, like dust and smoke, significantly impact cloud formation and behavior, influencing rainfall patterns and atmospheric humidity. Through meticulous observations, EarthCARE aims to refine climate predictions and weather forecasts, shedding light on humanity’s impact on natural processes.

Clouds & Climate Infographic.
Clouds & Climate Infographic. Credit: ESA

EarthCARE’s primary objective is to delve into the intricate relationship between clouds, aerosols, and Earth’s climate. How do these elements reflect solar radiation back into space and trap infrared radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface?

What sets EarthCARE apart is its ability to measure vertical profiles of cloud particles and aerosols, along with their fall speed, for the very first time. Moreover, EarthCARE will meticulously analyse the distribution of water droplets and ice crystals within clouds, painting a more detailed picture of cloud composition and behaviour. This wealth of information holds the potential to revolutionize our cloud development models, enhancing their accuracy and reliability.

Operating in a Sun-synchronous polar orbit at an altitude of 393 kilometers, EarthCARE will complete a full orbit around the Earth every 90 minutes.

How Will It Work? New State-of-the-Art Technology

Five words: high-performance lidar and radar technology. A feat never before attempted in space exploration.

Weighing approximately 1.7 tonnes, EarthCARE will carry four cutting-edge instruments onboard: the Atmospheric Lidar, Broad-Band Radiometer, and Multi-Spectral Imager developed by ESA, alongside the Cloud Profiling Radar developed by JAXA.

EarthCARE instruments. Credit: ESA

ATLID (Atmospheric Lidar) and CPR (Cloud Profiling Radar) will offer vertical profiles of cloud and aerosol structures, while the Multi-Spectral Imager (MSI) will enable the distinction of different cloud types and aerosols, providing a comprehensive meteorological and optical framework for analyzed profiles. Additionally, the Broad-Band Radiometer (BBR) will deliver broadband radiances at the top of the atmosphere, ensuring the consistency of cloud radiative properties retrievals.

EarthCARE’s atmospheric lidar
EarthCARE’s atmospheric lidar. Credit: ESA
EarthCARE's cloud profiling radar
EarthCAREs cloud profiling radar. Credit: ESA

Equipped with these state-of-the-art instruments, EarthCARE’s atmospheric lidar will unveil cloud-top information and profiles of thin clouds and aerosols, while the cloud profiling radar will offer insights into the vertical structure, motion, and internal dynamics of clouds. The multispectral imager will provide a wide-scene overview in multiple wavelengths, and the broadband radiometer will directly measure reflected solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation.

When & Where to Watch the Launch?

You can catch every moment of this historic event on ESA WebTV or via the ESA YouTube Channel. The program kicks off at 23:34 CEST (22:34 London time), broadcasting directly from the European Space Operations Centre. At 00:05 CEST, the SpaceX live broadcast begins. The lift-off itself is scheduled for 00:20 CEST.

Interesting Fact

Credit: @ESA_EO’s X account (former Twitter)

In line with JAXA tradition, EarthCARE has been bestowed with the nickname “Hakuryu” or “White Dragon” in Japanese. This name holds significant symbolism, reflecting the satellite’s appearance, characterised by its white body and solar panel resembling a long tail. In Japanese mythology, dragons are revered as ancient and divine beings, often associated with the elements of water and the sky. This metaphor aptly aligns with EarthCARE’s mission to study clouds and aerosols, essential elements of Earth’s atmosphere. Moreover, the choice of “Hakuryu: is particularly fitting as EarthCARE’s launch in 2024 coincides with the Japanese Year of the Dragon, known as “tatsu-doshi”.

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