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Thales Alenia Space reaches major milestone in CRISTAL mission development for Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation program

Contract amendment signed for development and qualification of the IRIS radar altimeter


Toulouse, June 27, 2022. Thales Alenia Space, the joint company between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%), signed an amendment to the CRISTAL contract with Airbus Defence and Space, prime contractor for the satellite. The amendment provides for the development and qualification of IRIS, the  Interferometric Radar Altimeter for Ice and Snow to be carried on the Copernicus polaR Ice and Snow Topography ALtimeter (CRISTAL) mission. CRISTAL is part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Expansion program, in partnership with the European Commission. Copernicus is a European flagship program providing Earth observation and in situ data, along with a broad range of services for environmental monitoring and protection, climate monitoring and natural disaster assessment to improve the quality of life for all European citizens.

The signature of this amendment marks a critical step forward in the CRISTAL mission, designed to measure the thickness of sea ice and the height of ice caps – two key indicators of climate change. Thales Alenia Space has completed the first phase in this contract (B2), awarded by Airbus in 2020, concerning the preliminary design of the altimeter, with the instrument passing its preliminary design review. It now enters the detailed design, qualification and final development phase (phase CD). The altimeter will be delivered to Airbus in 2025 for integration in the CRISTAL satellite, slated for launch in 2027.



The CRISTAL satellite will feature, for the first-time, a dual-frequency Ku/Ka-band radar altimeter to measure and monitor sea-ice thickness and overlying snow depth. Measurements of sea-ice thickness will support maritime operations and also help plan activities in the polar regions. IRIS will also measure and monitor changes in the height of ice sheets and glaciers around the world, using its interferometric radar capabilities. IRIS will significantly improve the measurement accuracy of its predecessor, SIRAL-2 (a Ku-band only altimeter on ESA’s CryoSat-2 Earth Explorer mission), thanks to its dual frequency operation and the addition of sea surface height measurement capability. The CRISTAL mission operates on a global scope and is a key to better understanding and monitoring the Earth’s climate in a context of rapid climate change.

"Thales Alenia Space is proud to contribute to the CRISTAL mission, which will play a critical role in understanding and monitoring climate change, as supplier of the IRIS altimeter, which draws on our long-standing expertise in space altimetry and proven flight heritage on SIRAL-2", said Hervé Derrey, President and CEO of Thales Alenia Space.“Polar regions have a real influence on global climate models, thermohaline circulation and the global energy balance. A long-term program to monitor Earth polar ice, ocean and snow topography, such as CRISTAL, is therefore extremely important.”

The development of the IRIS altimeter will call on the legacy of several advanced altimeters produced by Thales Alenia Space for major programs, including SIRAL-2, Poseidon 4 on Sentinel-6/Jason-CS, AltiKa on the CNES/ISRO SARAL satellite and KaRIn on the CNES/JPL SWOT satellite. Thales Alenia Space is also the first company to make an interferometric SAR altimeter (SIRAL) to be proven in orbit, confirming its unrivaled expertise in interferometric radar electronics and antennas.


Manufacturer contributions to CRISTAL
Thales Alenia Space in France is prime contractor for the IRIS altimeter, with Thales Alenia Space in Belgium providing the Ku and Ka-band solid state amplifier power supply, Thales Alenia Space in Italy the ultra-stable oscillator and Thales Alenia Space in Spain the S-band transponder (SBT).


Thales Alenia Space, world leader in space altimetry
Thales Alenia Space is a world leader in space altimetry, a technique that lets us study sea surface height, sea ice thickness and river and lake levels, as well as land, ice sheet and seabed topography. The company has provided a host of instruments for oceanography, including the Poseidon altimeters on the Topex-Poseidon and Jason 1, 2 and 3 satellites for French space agency CNES. Thales Alenia Space also built the AltiKa Ka-band altimeter for the French-Indian SARAL oceanography satellite and the SIRAL 2 very-high-resolution SAR (synthetic aperture radar) altimeter on ESA’s Cryosat-2 satellite, capable of measuring variations in sea ice thickness and continental ice mass balance with unprecedented accuracy. In addition, Thales Alenia Space supplies the SRAL SAR altimeters for Sentinel-3, the SWIM altimeter on the CFOSat satellite for CNES, which measures wave spectra, and the SADKO altimeters on Russia’s GEO-IK satellites.


Illustrations © Airbus


Drawing on over 40 years of experience and a unique combination of skills, expertise and cultures, Thales Alenia Space delivers cost-effective solutions for telecommunications, navigation, Earth observation, environmental management, exploration, science and orbital infrastructures. Governments and private industry alike count on Thales Alenia Space to design satellite-based systems that provide anytime, anywhere connections and positioning, monitor our planet, enhance management of its resources, and explore our Solar System and beyond. Thales Alenia Space sees space as a new horizon, helping to build a better, more sustainable life on Earth. A joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%), Thales Alenia Space also teams up with Telespazio to form the parent companies’ Space Alliance, which offers a complete range of services. Thales Alenia Space posted consolidated revenues of approximately 2.15 billion euros in 2021 and has around 8,900 employees in 10 countries with 17 sites in Europe and a plant in the US.



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