SpaceX to launch UK-backed ‘sea cartographer’ satellite

The Sentinel-6 satellite that is due to launch on Saturday

Credit: European Space Agency

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch a Government-backed satellite that will help British scientists monitor rising sea levels in a bid to tackle climate change.

The Sentinel-6 satellite, which is approximately the size of a 4×4 car, will orbit the Earth 830 miles above the planet and collect data for ocean and weather forecasts. 

It contains cutting-edge instruments able to capture sea level height with unprecedented accuracy, adding to space-based measurements going back almost 30 years.

"This is an extremely important parameter for climate monitoring," said Josef Aschbacher, the agency’s director of Earth observation.

The UK Space Agency will use the data to monitor the risk posed to coastal communities. The Government hopes it will help it more accurately predict flooding and reduce the hundreds of millions of pounds spent each year on flood defences

Its most powerful weapon is the Poseidon-4 radar altimeter, named after the trident-wielding Greek god of the sea. The instrument measures how long it takes for radar signals to bounce off the sea surface and back to the satellite.

The new satellite will also collect measurements at higher resolution than its predecessors, allowing researchers to peer more closely at small ocean features, especially along the coastlines.

Other instruments on board will measure how radio signals pass through the atmosphere, providing data on atmospheric temperature and humidity that can help improve global weather forecasts.

Matthew Palmer, a leading scientist at the Met Office, said rising sea levels posed “one of the greatest socio-economic challenges” associated with climate change.

“Space-based observations since the 1990s have revolutionised our understanding of rates of sea-level rise around the globe,” he said.

“The Sentinel-6 observations are critical for ongoing monitoring of global sea level and revealing the spatial pattern of rise associated with climate change.”

The Sentinel-6 is part of the European Copernicus Programme, the EU’s Earth observation effort. The UK has provided funding to the new satellite having committed £200m for observation at the European Space Agency last November.

Stevenage-based Airbus Defence made the propulsion system for the satellite. It relies on eight thrusters to keep the 1.3 tonne satellite in the correct orbit for its mission. Airbus has also built the system for the Sentinel’s sister launch, which is due to take place in 2025.

John Siddorn, co-chair of the Partnership for Ocean Prediction, said the new satellites “safeguard our ocean monitoring and predictions” for the next decade.

UK space agencies are also working on two new missions, dubbed “TRUTH” and “FORUM”, that will monitor sources of carbon, the principal greenhouse gas behind global warming.

The satellite is due to be launched today at 5.17pm from the Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. A live stream can be watchedhere.

The launch comes after UK satellite operator OneWeb officially emerged from bankruptcy. Ownership has now moved across to a new company owned by its principal shareholders, namely the Government and Indian giant Bharti Global.

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