A major new centre for Earth observation has been launched by Science Minister Lord Drayson.
The National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) will bring together the UK’s space experts to focus on the planet’s biggest environmental challenges. The launch is the start of a busy year for UK space science. Britain is a major investor in the European Space Agency which plans to launch three Earth observation satellites in 2009.
Speaking at the launch at the Royal Institution in London, Lord Drayson said, “Society is relying on science for answers to the most complex and daunting environmental challenges facing the planet. The launch of the National Centre for Earth Observation represents the UK’s determination to use the full potential of space technology for environmental research and make the most of this country’s considerable expertise. Satellites offer a unique perspective on the interconnected processes that are shaping our world.”
With a budget of £33 million, NCEO involves more than 100 investigators from 26 UK universities and research centres. It will bring together seismologists, oceanographers and computer modellers to analyse data generated from British satellites and from European Space Agency programmes.
Dr Brian Kerridge of The Science and Technology Facilities Council who was also speaking at the launch said: “The National Centre for Earth Observation will exploit quantitatively global observations made from satellites of the atmosphere, ocean, land surface and polar ice sheets. These observations will be used to test critically diverse components of the highly complex models used for climate prediction, for example the UK’s coupled chemistry – climate model (UKCA). This will lead to improved representation of key processes in the system, and then to more reliable predictions of future climate.”
The NCEO already has a leading scientific role in developing two of the three missions in the final selection stage for European Space Agency’s Earth observation programme, the Earth Explorer missions.
If successful, the BIOMASS mission will monitor for the first time the global distribution of forest biomass. The aim is to reduce uncertainties in the calculations of carbon stocks and movements. The ‘PREMIER’ mission will evaluate the processes controlling the composition of the atmosphere between 5 and 25km above the surface of the Earth.
The first Earth Explorer mission, GOCE, or Gravity and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, has been dubbed the ‘Formula One of satellites’ on account of its sleek lines, designed to skip over the top of the atmosphere.
It is designed to map out the Earth’s gravity field in more detail than before and create a complete picture of the world’s ocean circulations.
The Soil Moisture and Ocean salinity mission, or SMOS, and CryoSat-2, which will monitor variations in the thickness of the continental ice-sheets and marine ice cover, are scheduled for launch late in the year.
NCEO director Professor Alan O’Neill said: “This is the beginning of a very exciting journey as Earth observation from space has never been more important. It is a vital tool in measuring and managing the health of the planet. We now have such advanced technology we can predict what environmental issues are likely to occur and determine how to deal with them.”