Climate change and impact
More recently, as concerns over climate change have grown more urgent, space agencies and industry have undertaken huge efforts to better monitor the Earth’s environment and understand the underlying phenomena. Thales Alenia Space satellites are at the forefront of this effort, deploying cutting edge technologies and techniques to help scientists understand how the earth’s climate is changing.
One of the main breakthroughs in climatology was provided by the Jason satellites, developed for CNES, the French space agency, as part of a cooperative programme with NASA. The Jason satellites fly a payload devoted to ultra-accurate Ocean altimetry, and as such have provided a wealth of information to climatology scientists. In particular, they have reported that the mean sea level has risen over the last 20 years (more than 3mm per year during the last decade, whereas it was estimated to be about 1.7mm per year on average over the last century).
In addition, Jason satellites have helped deliver exceptionally precise mapping of the main ocean currents – the Gulf Stream and EL Niño in particular – which have a major impact on climate evolution. These observations help scientist better understand the interactions between the oceans and our climate, and to build models to predict future evolutions.
The performance achieved by Thales Alenia Space in space altimetry is such that they are now acknowledged to be the undisputed leader in this domain, and their instruments are now deployed by all main space agencies across the world.
More recently, Thales Alenia Space also announced that it has been selected by the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France to build the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) oceanographic satellite.
The SWOT project comprises both oceanography and hydrology elements. For oceanography, the satellite will provide measurements of ocean surface and wave height with higher resolution than previous Jason satellites. This data will then be used to analyse and understand the effects of coastal circulation on marine life, ecosystems, water quality and energy transfers. As a result scientists should gain more accurate models of the interactions between oceans and the atmosphere.
Meanwhile the hydrology mission will evaluate continental surface water, to study changes in water storage in humid zones, lakes and reservoirs, as well as flow rates in rivers.
For its part, ESA, in collaboration with the European Commission, has decided to tackle the issue of permanent earth environment monitoring by launching an extensive initiative called the Copernicus programme. Thanks to this permanent monitoring effort, the so called Copernicus “Sentinels”, will help scientists measure the evolution of long term climate parameters, and to understand associated physical phenomena.
Once again, Thales Alenia Space is playing a vital role in the programme. Some of the main achievements include:
- Sentinel-1: the Copernicus flagship satellite for maritime surveillance.
- Sentinel-3: devoted to operational oceanography, it flies a suite of ultra-accurate instruments suite for altimetry, ocean colour monitoring and sea surface temperature measurement.
- Sentinel-6: will provide the continuity of service after JASON-3.
- GOCE satellite: launched as part of the ESA Earth Explorers programme and has helped scientists measure local variations in the Earth’s gravitational field, and thus ocean circulation, with an unprecedented level of accuracy. Its precision was such that it could have detected the impact of a new skyscraper on the Earth’s gravitational field.
Last but not least, governments, space agencies and industry are already actively preparing for the future fight against global warming. France will shortly host the COP21, a United Nations Climate change conference. This is intended to achieve a legally binding universal agreement on climate and to develop new tools in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, CNES is already developing an advanced satellite to accurately measure CO2 content in the atmosphere, which is the first step towards implementing a global CO2 control and compensation system. Of course Thales has been an active player in this project since its inception, running ambitious R&D programmes, as well as sponsoring scientists involved in the research effort. This will be our next challenge in the field of climatology and environment monitoring from space.