CO2-tracking satellites crucial for climate efforts, say space experts

An artist's impression of Sentinel-6, which will provide accurate readings of sea levels. [Photo: ESA]

Current Earth observation technologies are not accurate enough when it comes to monitoring carbon dioxide emissions, according to delegates at the EU’s space week in Helsinki. A new system set to launch in 2025 should change all that.

The EU’s Copernicus satellite system will get an upgrade in just over five years time, with a new model, Sentinel-7, dedicated to monitoring anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Three satellites are expected to orbit the earth 14 times a day.

Each satellite will be capable of viewing 250km of the earth’s surface during a pass, marking a significant improvement on the current crop of orbiters, the most advanced of which can only see 15km. The European Space Agency has already been in contact with potential manufacturers.

Once the fleet is in space, technicians will be able to pinpoint exactly where carbon emissions are coming from. Copernicus satellites have so far only been able to give an average reading on CO2 concentration but not the specific source of emissions.

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“Current CO2 observation is not as accurate as we need and gives only partial results. The new Copernicus system will change that. It’s much more complicated to observe emissions than concentration,” said Florence Rabler of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

The practical applications are vast, as policy-makers will be able to judge whether measures like congestion charges, diesel bans or carbon trading schemes are working as intended.

Sentinel-7 is also expected to launch shortly before the next global emissions stocktake, scheduled under the Paris Agreement. Sentinels 5 and 6, dedicated to atmospheric monitoring and sea-level rise, are expected to launch in 2020 and 2021.

One of the main principles of climate diplomacy is the concept that emissions do not respect geographical borders. Copernicus’ new powers will allow its users to effectively name and shame who is not doing their bit for the cause.

Europe’s system is expected to work in conjunction with similar missions expected to be launched by China, Japan and the United States in the coming years.

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ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Wörner told the Helsinki conference that “it is important to know where specific sources of CO2 are, not an average value. That’s why we need more than one or two satellites, we need a fleet.”

More eyes in the sky will mean more data. According to the European Commission’s Pierre Delsaux, the deputy head of the executive’s internal market department, the EU will need to start using space information more efficiently.

“We have a lot of data from Copernicus but we don’t exploit it. Artificial Intelligence is needed to dig into that data and take us to the next level,” the official said. Rabler agreed that AI is needed and that “the beauty of open data” means that third parties will be able to pitch in.

Europe’s space administrators have a strong track record to preserve. The Galileo global positioning system, due to be completed next year, is widely considered the most accurate available on the market, while Copernicus is also a global leader.

We have the best tools in the world to observe climate change. We are the leader in Earth observation and we’ll continue to be so,” insisted Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales.

One small step for the EU…

Wörner, whose agency was awarded a bumped up budget last week by its member states, added that more satellites means more efforts will be needed to remove space debris. 

But the ESA chief warned that “we should not just concentrate on observation, we need to go to mitigation”, explaining that technology developed during space missions, such as high-performance solar panels, fuel cells and better water-use techniques will play a role.

European Space Agency gets astronomical budget

The European Space Agency (ESA) will enjoy a budget of €14.4 billion over the next five years, after the agency’s 22 member states agreed on Thursday (28 November) to increase funding for space exploration.

“The greenhouse effect was observed on Venus. Observing in situ can raise awareness too. I’m not just talking about high tech instruments, human eyes can be far more powerful. Astronauts seeing these problems firsthand is very powerful,” Wörner explained.

ESA’s €14.4 billion budget for the next five-year period will include more manned space missions and will even go towards sending European astronauts to the moon for the first time. It will also help fund the estimated €630 million price-tag for the new satellites.

The EU shares some of the burden of financing the satellite systems but its contribution will depend on how talks on the next long-term budget progress. A recent proposal tabled by the Finnish presidency shaved more than €1 billion of the space budget.

But the Commission is still putting more resources into the sector. Ursula von der Leyen’s new executive has a new department dedicated solely to defence and space policy, after it was spun off from the internal market division.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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