London, 4 October 2005
Reports of record lows for the extent of Arctic sea ice precede the launch of CryoSat, the European Space Agency satellite. The mission is set to address one of the most hotly debated issues in the environmental science community - how quickly are the ice caps thinning?
Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said: 'CryoSat will be crucial to our understanding of one of our planet's most fragile areas. The UK's world-class science and innovative engineering has put us right at the heart of this cutting edge mission.'
The three-year mission, scheduled to blast off from the Khrunichev Space Centre, Plesetsk, Russia, on 8 October, was proposed by UK scientist, Professor Duncan Wingham from the Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.
Professor Wingham said: 'The great difficulty at present is to figure out whether changes in ice cover are due to melting or to changes in the winds that shift the ice around. The only way to do this is to examine the entire Arctic at the same time. CryoSat is the first satellite designed to do this job, and after six years in the making, we are really looking forward to getting our hands on the data.'
The Natural Environment Research Council's Chief Executive, Professor Alan Thorpe said: 'We know the Arctic is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet and that it is particularly sensitive to climate change. The reports of a major loss of Arctic sea ice cover in August and September only serve to highlight the importance of the three-year mission.'
But the satellite will do more than just measure Arctic sea ice: its orbit takes it over the major ice sheets - Antarctica and Greenland. Scientists will be able to use CryoSat data to accurately predict sea level rise caused by melting ice sheets.
CryoSat's altimeter, the primary instrument onboard, has the ability to measure ice sheets and sea ice with unprecedented accuracy. Until now satellites have been unable to monitor melting ice at the very point where it is most significant: at the ice edge. CryoSat's ability to do just that thrills scientists working in the field, while the altimeter's ability to pick out sea ice of around one kilometre in diameter will greatly improve annual melt estimations.
Meanwhile, UK industry has played a key role in the mission technology. For example UK space software experts at SciSys developed the onboard application software that will be responsible for controlling the precise orbit and attitude of the spacecraft. It will also handle all communications with ground control.
Notes to editors
1. NERC is one of the UK's eight research councils. It uses a budget of about £350m a year to fund and carry out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. It is addressing some of the key questions facing mankind such as global warming, renewable energy and sustainable economic development.
2. The British National Space Centre (BNSC) acts as the UK's space agency, coordinating space policy across Government. A partnership of 11 Government departments and research councils, BNSC represents UK space interests internationally and is a member of the European Space Agency.