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European BIOMASS mission set for 2020 launch

13 May 2013

The UK is set to take part in a European space mission to map and monitor the amount of biomass and carbon stored in the world’s forests.

Named BIOMASS, the new mission will provide information essential to our understanding of the role of forests in Earth’s carbon cycle and in climate change.

The satellite is designed to provide, for the first time from space, P-band radar measurements that are optimised to determine the amount of biomass and carbon with greater accuracy than ever before.

In addition, BIOMASS will be able to map the elevation of Earth’s terrain under dense vegetation, yielding information on subsurface geology and allowing the estimation of glacier and ice-sheet velocities, critical to our understanding of ice-sheet mass loss in a warming Earth.

Due for launch in 2020, the mission also has the potential to evolve into an operational system, providing long-term monitoring of forests – one of Earth’s most important natural resources.

"As trees grow, they take in carbon and store it. But during deforestation this carbon is released into the atmosphere," says Professor Shaun Quegan of the University of Sheffield who, along with Dr Thuy Le Toan from the Centre d'Etudes Spatiales de la Biosphere, Toulouse, helped conceive the idea for the mission eight years ago and is one of the principal investigators now supporting it.

"This is just one way carbon cycles between different storage sites and as this global carbon cycle becomes unbalanced more carbon is being released from storage into the atmosphere, ultimately affecting on our climate.

"Understanding how the amount of living material - biomass - in our global forests changes over time is necessary for improving present and future assessments of the global carbon cycle, and therefore our climate."

The mission could run for up to five years from launch. Scientists anticipate collecting useful data as early as three months into the mission, as long as calibration experiments go well.

“Biomass is an innovative new addition to the Earth Explorer satellite series,” said Volker Liebig, director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes. It will play an important role in quantifying forest biomass – information necessary to better understand the Carbon Cycle.”

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