Biomass: the 7th European Space Agency Earth Explorer mission

NERC-funded science underpins the development of a €200 million satellite that will provide the first accurate global maps of forest biomass from space. The Biomass mission, proposed by a team led by Professor Shaun Quegan of the University of Sheffield’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, was chosen by the European Space Agency (ESA) to be its seventh mission to help better understand and manage the Earth and its environment.

Novel science

Biomass was up against 25 initial competing bids and a rigorous eight-year selection process before it was successfully chosen in May 2013. Through its National Centre of Earth Observation (NCEO), NERC supported feasibility studies underpinning the science case for the mission.

As well as being the first P-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in space, the mission embodies two highly innovative technologies: polarimetric interferometry for forest height, and SAR tomography to image forest layers. P-band has not been used before in space because of prohibitive international regulation lifted in 2004. Only this wavelength provides sufficient sensitivity to woody biomass underneath the forest canopy, as well as the stability needed for height and tomographic measurements.

This technology will help determine the amount of carbon stored in the world’s forests with greater accuracy than ever before; measurements will show how this changes over the five-year lifetime of the mission. Information will also be gathered on ice-sheet motion and internal structures in cold regions, subsurface geology in arid regions, soil moisture, permafrost and the ionosphere.

Impact

When the technology is in space, the potential market could be worth billions of pounds: the data generated will be useful for carbon trading, forest resource management and prospecting for water in arid regions. It will provide credible figures for treaties aimed at reducing emissions due to deforestation and degradation. Oil companies and utilities will be interested in detailed topographic maps that can ‘see through’ the canopy to show the true landforms that lie beneath.

Leading up to the launch in 2019–2020, two European industrial consortia have already received €5.6 million for development of relevant technology and to demonstrate feasibility. A further €277 million of funding has been specifically earmarked for industrial spending to prepare for the mission.

Matt O’Donnell, Business Development Manager, Earth Observation, Airbus Defence and Space, said: “It is important for our company to work through ESA and alongside NERC scientists in order to make space missions scientifically valuable while also being economically affordable and technically feasible.”

Skills

Professor Quegan’s unique skills have helped the mission to succeed. His ability to combine developments in ecosystem modelling, SAR measurements, ionospheric correction and system calibration provided key science understanding to underpin the technology. His active pan-European networking and stakeholder engagement gathered support for its benefits.

Working within the NCEO, and before that in the NERC Centre for Terrestrial Carbon Dynamics, has trained Professor Quegan to bring together highly multidisciplinary teams. He said: “Gaining leadership skills within NCEO has been central in helping me to lead this mission, given the huge range of capabilities involved.”

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