European satellite on mission to study melting ice caps

The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a satellite dedicated to studying how climate change is affecting the Earth's ice.

The CryoSat-2 was launched yesterday (8 April) from Kazakhstan. The data it sends back from its polar orbit will help European scientists to monitor when and where ice is melting or growing.

CryoSat-2 replaces the original CryoSat satellite, which was lost in 2005 following a launch failure. The mission objectives, however, remain the same: to measure changes in the thickness of the vast ice sheets that overlie Antarctica and Greenland, as well as variations in the thickness of the relatively thin ice floating in the polar oceans. 

"We know from our radar satellites that sea ice extent is diminishing, but there is still an urgent need to understand how the volume of ice is changing," said Volker Liebig, the ESA's director of Earth Observation Programmes.

"To make these calculations, scientists also need information on ice thickness, which is exactly what our new CryoSat satellite will provide. We are now very much looking forward to receiving the first data from the mission," he said.

The launch of CryoSat-2 brings to three the number of its Earth Explorer satellites placed in orbit, all having been launched within a little over 12 months.

CryoSat-2 follows on from the Gravity Field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) mission, launched in March 2009, and the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission, launched last November.

Earth Explorers are launched in direct response to issues identified by the scientific community and aim to improve our understanding of how the Earth system works and the effect that human activity is having on natural processes, the ESA said.

Now that CryoSat-2 is safely in orbit, the Mission Control Team at ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, is busy with the critical launch and early operations phase.

Although built mainly in Germany and France, CryoSat-2 is led scientifically from the UK by its proposer and principal investigator, Duncan Wingham of University College London.

"Today, it's just a real pleasure; and I speak on behalf of all the scientists who will use the data to just thank all of those many people who contributed to this mission. Personally, it's been a fabulous ride for me," he told the launch event in Darmstadt.

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