Airbus UK to build satellites measuring detail in climate change jigsaw

Forum programme promises to bring new understanding to atmospheric processes linked to climate change

Forum is the European Space Agency's ninth Earth Explorer mission. ESA
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Airbus in the UK has been awarded a €160 million (£138m) contract to build satellites that will help measure the greenhouse effect and fill in a critical missing piece of the climate jigsaw.

The European Space Agency says the satellites will help measure a part of the Earth’s outgoing energy that has not been measured before.

The Forum programme — Far-infrared Outgoing Radiation Understanding and Monitoring — promises to bring new understanding to atmospheric processes linked to climate change.

“This critical Earth observation mission to measure infrared radiation from the Earth for the first time will give scientists and climatologists the data they need to improve their global warming forecasts,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus.

“It builds on Airbus’ heritage in designing and manufacturing cost-efficient small Earth observation missions, including Copernicus Sentinel-5P, and is the sixth Airbus primed Earth Explorer mission for the European Space Agency.”

Measurements from the mission will improve confidence in the accuracy of climate change assessments that form the basis for future policy decisions, the ESA said.

The Earth’s surface temperature is driven by the radiation balance at the top of the atmosphere, but this balance has been disturbed by the emission of greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space.

More than half of Earth’s outgoing longwave energy is in the far-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but this particular part of the spectrum has never been measured before. Forum will now measure across the far-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The measurements are important because Earth’s outgoing radiation at these wavelengths is strongly affected by water vapour and ice clouds, which in turn play a key role in regulating surface temperatures.

“Forum, which we plan to launch from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana in 2027, is a single-satellite mission that will carry a Fourier Transform Spectrometer that can measure across Earth’s entire far-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum,” said Dominique Gillieron, ESA’s Earth Explorer programme manager.

“It will be the very first time that this part of the spectrum will be measured from space with this accuracy and this will greatly contribute to climate research.

“With Forum’s important role to play, this contract is a significant milestone and we look forward to the build ahead.”

Forum is the ESA’s ninth Earth Explorer mission.

UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation George Freeman said of the project: “This important new mission to further improve the accuracy of climate forecasts and view our planet through new eyes is another illustration of UK space tech expertise.

“This is a significant industrial contract which demonstrates the UK’s strengths in Earth observation technology and satellite manufacturing, as well as our global leadership in tackling climate change.”

Updated: June 29, 2022, 4:04 PM