Space travel: The “white dragon” flies: ESA mission “Earthcare” in space

Space travel
The “white dragon” flies: ESA mission “Earthcare” in space

A Falcon 9 rocket from the US space company SpaceX takes off with the Earth observation satellite “Earthcare” on board. Photo

© S. Corvaja/esa/dpa

For almost an hour there was anxious waiting: Will the launch work, will the power supply work – and will the satellite “talk”? ESA’s next mission in space has been underway since Wednesday.

When the redeeming contact comes, there is great joy in the control center of the European Space Agency Esa in Darmstadt. At 1:14 a.m. (CEST), the Earth observation satellite “Earthcare” sends the first signals over South Africa and begins communication – just under an hour after the successful launch in Vandenberg, California. ESA has a new mission, and the tension on the faces in the control center gives way to relief and joy.

“We are extremely happy that everything has worked out so far,” says mission leader Björn Frommknecht following the success. The relief is great. “It’s a fantastic night,” says mission scientist Thorsten Fehr. The rocket brought the satellite exactly where it was supposed to go. “If it continues to go so perfectly, it will be a dream.”

Better climate models and weather forecasts

The launch vehicle was ignited at 0.20 a.m. (CEST), as images from a live broadcast in the ESA control center showed. The orbiter then took off on board a Falcon 9 rocket from the US space company SpaceX. The satellite is to be placed in an orbit at an altitude of around 400 kilometers to study the interaction of clouds, aerosols and solar radiation in the atmosphere globally, thus making better climate models and weather forecasts possible. According to ESA experts, this will make it possible to create a 3D model of the atmosphere in its entire altitude profile for the first time.

Several sticking points at the start

Hours before the launch, ESA’s Director of Mission Operations, Rolf Densing, explained the critical intermediate steps. The launch, the deployment of the solar panels to generate energy and the establishment of the first communication link – there are many exciting moments. “The signal from the satellite is crucial, then we have something we can work with,” said Densing. Everything will be checked and tested over the next six months, and only then will it be a routine operation. The satellite is still “like a baby in its early days.”

According to the German Aerospace Center (DLR), when its solar panels are deployed, the orbiter is around 17 meters long, 2.5 meters wide and 3.5 meters high. The instruments on board send light pulses and analyze the reflected signals. The Japanese space agency Jaxa contributed a radar that can be used to examine the inner workings of clouds. There is also an instrument that takes high-resolution images in the visible and infrared light spectrum. The fourth instrument measures the reflected solar radiation and the thermal radiation emanating from the earth.

Experts see the mission as a new dimension in Earth observation. Scientists say that our knowledge of the Earth’s atmosphere and its interaction with aerosols and clouds is incomplete. These gaps are now to be closed.

ESA mission scientist Fehr estimated the total cost of “Earthcare” (Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer) at 800 million euros for the European side. The Japanese space agency Jaxa is also contributing around 52 million euros for one of the instruments. The Japanese also gave the orbiter the nickname “white dragon” because of its shape and color. Legend has it that white dragons can fly particularly fast.

Space travel to improve life

The mission represents Germany’s space strategy, said Walther Pelzer, director of the German Space Agency at DLR. “Germany has been involved in space travel for decades to improve life on Earth.” Germany has been a leader in earth observation for decades, including within ESA.

Here, infrastructure in earthquake zones can be identified or water quality can be examined via satellite. Pelzer hopes that the mission will provide new insights – it is about fundamental questions. All data will later be freely accessible. “We want this data.”


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