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Monday, June 7, 1999 Published at 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK


UK leads Euro space study

The project hopes to predict natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch

British scientists are spearheading a £400m project to examine the Earth from space.

The BBC's Christine McGourty: "The idea is to find out how the Earth works by studying it from space"
The European Space Agency's Living Planet programme will use orbiting satellites to improve our knowledge of the Earth's weather systems.

The data could help provide early warning of natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch, which devastated much of Central America last year.

The project, the biggest of its kind yet launched, will also examine the effects of global warming.

[ image: Satellites should show the effects of global warming]
Satellites should show the effects of global warming
A British project called Cryostat, studying the effects of global warming on the polar ice caps, is the first mission - to be launched in 2002.

Led by Professor Duncan Wingham of University College, London, much of the research has been supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

ESA will donate £54m and there will be extra cash coming in from other sources, including industry.

His project, expected to last three years, was selected out of a total of 27 proposals from around Europe.

Prof Wingham said their satellite probe will provide extremely useful information to those back on Earth.

He said: "If we want information that sets the levels of insurance on houses properly, or decide how close they should build to the seashore or whether salt is likely to affect their crops on the coast, then we need to understand the details of mechanisms of the Earth's climate much better than we do."

Second mission

Scientists at the Southampton Oceanography Centre and the Institute of Hydrology are part of a European team expected to carry out a second mission to investigate the amount of moisture and salt in the soil.

It is hoped the results will improve weather forecasting, climate change monitoring and prediction of severe weather events.

The Living Planet opening ceremony was hosted by UK Science Minister Lord Sainsbury at the Institute of Materials. He is also the new chairman of the ESA council.

"The Earth is our own special 'living planet' and we must be concerned to manage it in the future in such a way that it continues to support our life on it," he said.

"Space technology is a key means of providing such information."

ESA said this was the most comprehensive Earth satellite programme yet launched.

It is divided into large "core" missions and smaller and cheaper "opportunity" missions. The private-public nature of the funding should make this project cheaper than previous ones.

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