CryoSat-2, a Satellite that Looks Like a Shed, Doing Science in the Freezer

Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would design (ESA)
Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would have designed (ESA)

ESA Cryosat-2 is set for launch in 2009 and it is the second attempt at getting the technology into orbit. Back in 2005, the original CryoSat was lost after a rocket malfunction caused it to fall short of the desired orbit, but much like the Phoenix Mars Lander story (i.e. it rose from the ashes of the lost Mars Polar Lander mission, recycled spare parts and reassembled the robot), Cryosat will fly once more. So what makes this mission so important? Well, it will carry out an essential three-year survey, measuring the thickness of global ice sheets.

But why am I really mentioning it? Like many ESA missions, the designs of their satellites and robots are so cool, and Cryosat-2 is no different. From some angles it looks like a sturdy intergalactic battleship, from others it looks like it was painstakingly designed by Da Vinci. Sometimes it even looks like a flying shed. In my books, that’s one interesting satellite. The science isn’t bad either…

The UK-led Cryosat-2 mission will make valuable measurements of the Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets and monitor variations in Arctic sea ice. The Cryosat-2 data can then be compared with other ESA missions (such as Envisat) and NASA missions (like IceSat). The current global warming trends are an increasing concern for the global community, and international space agencies are responding in an effort to understand the effects on the North and South Pole regions. If too much polar ice melts, the planet’s albedo will decrease, reflecting less sunlight. This will amplify the amount of solar long-wave electromagnetic radiation, heating the atmosphere further still.

Definition of Cryosphere:
The cryosphere, derived from the Greek word kryo for “cold” or “too cold”, is the term which collectively describes the portions of the Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets, and frozen ground (which includes permafrost). The cryosphere is an integral part of the global climate system with important linkages and feedbacks generated through its influence on surface energy and moisture fluxes, clouds, precipitation, hydrology, and atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Through these feedback processes, the cryosphere plays a significant role in global climate and in climate model response to global change. – from Wikipedia: Cryosphere

Da Vinci's armoured car design. If he designed a satellite, it would look like CryoSat (Leonardo da Vinci)
Da Vinci's armoured car design. If he designed a satellite, it would look like CryoSat (Leonardo da Vinci)

Much like the instrumentation carried by the GOCE satellite, the Cryosat-2 technology will be just as advanced. By carrying out a huge calibration effort on the ground, the satellite will eventually be able to measure ice thickness to the nearest centimetre – not bad considering the satellite will be orbiting at a low-Earth orbit of just over 700 km (430 miles). The ground calibration effort will include polar expeditions to manually measure ice thickness and aircraft flyovers to ensure the satellite is making precise measurements.

The 669 kg satellite will carry advanced instrumentation to fulfil two primary tasks. One will be to monitor the variation in the quantity of floating sea ice, the second will be to measure long-term variations in the thickness of large ice sheets. Both will generate data that can be related to the changing climate in the Polar Regions.

An orbiting shed? No, it's CryoSat-2 measuring variations in sea ice (ESA)
An orbiting shed? No, it's CryoSat-2 measuring variations in sea ice (ESA)

Science aside, I actually like the retro-look of CryoSat-2. In the picture above it could be mistaken as an orbiting shed, but this mission, like GOCE, has a certain kind of presence. It looks like it means business. Critically, CryoSat’s solar panelling is part of the craft’s bodywork, a definite departure from the traditional flimsy satellite profile.

For more information on this essential mission to monitor mankind’s impact on the polar ice content see:

Cryosat-2 had better get into orbit sharpish, there might not be much ice left to measure!


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