A group from University College London is behind the first satellite to be launched in the European Space Agency's new Living Planet programme for earth observation.
Called Cryosat, the satellite will be launched in 2002 and will look at ice cover in the Arctic, where some forecasts of global warming have predicted the disappearance of ice caps in the coming century.
Cryosat beat 26 other Living Planet bids. Proposed by a group led by Duncan Wingham of UCL, it will use two radars to look at ice and generate a synthetic map of ice thickness over the Arctic area. Because it does not use visible light, it will be able to see through clouds and to carry on observing during the lengthy Arctic night.
The radars will allow the exact height of the floating ice to be measured. Because a known fraction of an ice floe is above water, this will allow the total ice thickness to be calculated. If the Arctic ice vanishes the whole pattern of sunlight being absorbed by the earth will alter radically and bring major climate changes to the northern hemisphere.
Cryosat will be the first satellite in the initial Euro 600 million (Pounds 400 million) phase of Living Planet, of which the UK will be paying 14 per cent. Cryosat will cost about Euro 80 million (Pounds 54 million).