February 19, 2011

Space Laser Mission Gets Green Light

Europe's EarthCARE space laser mission was giving a green light to move forward with the program, despite a likely 30 percent increase in the program's final costs, BBC News reports.

The satellite will be put into orbit to study what type of role clouds and atmospheric particles have in a changing climate.

The European Space Agency (ESA), however, is having a tough time finding a workable design for the satellite's lidar instrument, which now means the total project budget will top $800 million (590m euros).

Even with the cost increase, member states of ESA believe that EarthCARE will be a valuable tool for studying climate change and will deliver crucial data for scientists.

The 18-nation alliance accepted the results of a review that assessed the technical risks of proceeding with the project. They also heard a clear message from the scientific community that EarthCARE would deliver ground-breaking information and provide invaluable research.

"The Program Board confirmed the conclusions of the independent assessment," Dr. Volker Liebig, ESA's director of Earth observation told BBC News.

"This re-affirmed the high scientific value of the EarthCARE mission - that there are unique synergies between all the instruments and it makes no sense to remove any of them. The board is confident that all has been done to reach the mission objectives in the 'costs at completion' which are at the moment foreseen," he said.

EarthCARE is part of ESA's Earth Explorers program -- a series of spacecraft that will perform cutting-edge scientific experiments in space and obtain data on issues of high-profile environmental concerns.

Three missions have gone into orbit so far, returning significant information on gravity, polar ice cover, soil moisture and ocean salinity.

EarthCARE's mission will be to study how clouds and fine particles form, evolve and affect the Earth's climate, weather and air quality. There is limited knowledge in such areas that can severely hinder their ability to forecast future changes to the planet's climate, scientists say.

Developmental designs for EarthCARE's primary instrument have proved very problematic as well.

Astrium-France, the primary contractor for the spacecraft, has had an extremely difficult time finding a design that will reliably work in the vacuum of space. A re-configuration of the lidar has added close to 200 million dollars (140m euros) to the projected total cost of the mission. It has also delayed the mission's launch date to 2016 -- two years later than previously planned.

"The board was asked to look into a potential de-scoping of the mission, but it was the clear view of all the scientists that the breakthrough EarthCARE will deliver comes from the combination of all the instruments," said Dr Liebig.

Earth observation is the ESA's biggest program, representing 20 percent of its total budget in 2011. The extra cost of EarthCARE will need to be absorbed, but Dr Liebig said the tendency of all high-technology missions to slip over time meant the additional expenditure could be managed in an affordable way.


Image Caption: Artist's impression of EarthCARE (Earth Clouds, Aerosols and Radiation Explorer) satellite. EarthCARE addresses the need for a better understanding of the interactions between cloud, radiative and aerosol processes that play a role in climate regulation. Credits: ESA


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