A concept image of the TRUTHS mission

Climate monitoring satellite receives funding boost

A satellite mission that could provide high resolution measurement of the impacts of climate change has received funding to create a detailed design.

The proposed TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies) mission is a project lead by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to launch a satellite that could give bench mark data to help test and tweak climate models and also recalibrate other earth observation satellites.

The project has been proposed for a number of years however the cost of mission means it had struggled to find funding. But thanks to a new approach and technological advances that helped reduce the complexity of the project, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has given the mission funding to develop a more detailed design of the instrumentation and identify partners.

Dr Nigel Fox, head of Earth Observation and Climate at NPL, who is leading the project said: “The recent IPCC findings make scary reading. But whilst we are pretty certain about man-made climate change, we don’t really know what the effects will be or how quickly they will happen.

“If governments are to make decisions significantly constraining carbon emissions or major investments like spending money on a new Thames Barrier or relocating entire populations, we need to be pretty sure we are doing the right thing at the right time. Until we know this, it will be all too easy for governments to procrastinate until it’s too late.”

The satellite, which proponents hope could be in orbit in 3 to 5 years, will use a suite of optical instruments to take measurements data vital to accurate climate modelling such as ice cover, cloud cover and height, aerosols and water vapour in the air, sea levels and temperature, chlorophyll in both the oceans and on land and the balance of incoming and outgoing energy solar radiation.

It is also able to make spectrally resolved measurements of both incoming and reflected solar radiation with a footprint roughly half the size of a football pitch, a factor of ten better accuracy than current satellites.

Monitoring climate change requires detection of very small trends – such as a 1 per cent change in high cloud cover per decade which using current instruments would take at least 30 years.  The TRUTHS mission would reduce the time to get a clear picture of the impact of climate change to approximately 12 years.

Satellites typically lose their calibration during launch, and sensor accuracy drifts further over time, but the TRUTHS instrumentation is calibrated in orbit, which means it can be used to calibrate and upgrade the performance of other earth observation satellites in space, cutting the cost of future missions by reducing the demands for on-board calibration systems.

A secondary objective of the mission would enable better monitoring of the health of crops and forests, which would help to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce world food shortages, whilst supporting sustained commercial growth, underpinning investments in future carbon markets and providing risk management for the insurance and energy sectors. 
“As climate predictions look increasingly frightening, the world is waking up to the need to know exactly what will happen so we can plan and respond properly,” said Fox.

“In addition to the next stage of funding from the (UKSA) Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation and Space Technology, the Chinese Government have started to seriously look at building a satellite using the concepts developed for the TRUTHS proposal.

“All being well, TRUTHS – or something like it – could be in orbit within 3 to 5 years and we can finally move from what the impact of climate change might be to what it will be”.

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