Page last updated at 19:42 GMT, Sunday, 15 March 2009

UK centre to keep watch on Earth

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

GOCE observation graphic (Esa)
Goce's gravity mapping is just one of many space observations that are possible

The launch of Europe's Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (Goce) satellite set for Monday will be the first large-scale effort involving the UK's new National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) since its official inauguration earlier this month.

The exquisite precision of Goce's measurements is just one facet of the data crucial to fulfil the NCEO's mission of harnessing space technology and expertise to better inform studies into the environment and, in particular, climate change.

The 33m, five-year collaboration was set up by the Natural Environmental Research Council (Nerc) and draws together 100 scientists from 26 UK universities.

Nerc makes the UK's contribution to the European Space Agency's (Esa) Earth Explorer missions, of which Goce is the first to fly.

The NCEO hopes to unite satellite, remote sensing, and ground-based data, integrating it with environmental models to provide an overarching view of the systems of our planet.

UK Science Minister Lord Drayson, speaking at the launch, said that satellite technology provided a particularly valuable role in the centre's mission.

Science competition

The NCEO effort, he said, "reflects the UK's determination to ensure that we use the fantastic science that we have around satellite technology - and space technology in general - to make the most contribution that we can to environmental research around climate change".

The effort was first announced in August 2006, with the appointment of its science director Alan O'Neill, a professor at the University of Reading.

Earth observation is providing us a key to unlock the door and at least push it significantly ajar, if not fully open
Alan O'Neill, NCEO director

At the official launch, Professor O'Neill announced that the NCEO would provide an "essential national resource" for Esa's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programme.

The centre will also oversee the development of two of the three finalists for Esa's seventh Earth Explorer mission: Premier, to measure atmospheric composition in a critical altitude range between five and 25km; and Biomass, to make precise measurements of the carbon locked up in the world's forests.

The pair are in competition with the CoReH2O concept - a mission that would study the fresh water bound up in ice on Earth. The parallel feasibility work will eventually lead to the launch of one of the three spacecraft in 2016.

Modelling errors

"I think it's fair to say that Earth-orbiting satellites are revolutionising our understanding of Planet Earth - how it works and what the forces are that are working against it," Professor O'Neill said.

"I'm quite convinced that those societies that capitalise on the rapidly developing technology are going to be very well-placed to respond to those challenges and to provide world leadership in a very scientifically informed way."

CryoSat (SPL)
European Space Agency (Esa) programme of Earth observation
Intended to address issues of key environmental concern
Six spacecraft already ordered; a seventh in discussion
Cryosat-2 (above) will map the Earth's ice cover
The mission is led scientifically from the UK

The NCEO, he added, would leverage the UK's space expertise "to do world-class science and ensure that the benefits of that science translate into public good".

The major scientific goals for the NCEO's future include revision and refinement of existing simulations of climate change.

"We want to use the wide variety of satellites to make improvements in our climate prediction models. This is not to say that the fundamental science is weak - on the contrary, the fundamental science is strong - but in order to derive more benefit from the predictions...we've got to iron out some significant problems that we have with the models.

"If you like, it's a war on errors in the models."

In addition, the NCEO will aim to understand whether changes in the global carbon cycle and the associated water cycle could in the future exacerbate climate change.

It will also study the way atmospheric pollution is transported around the globe and the public health issues that such transport creates, as well as continuing to refine knowledge of the changes taking place in polar ice cover.

Professor O'Neill remarked that very little is understood about how life interacts with the planet, a field of study he called "really the cutting edge of science".

"Earth observation is providing us a key to unlock the door and at least push it significantly ajar, if not fully open," he added.

'Breathing planet'

A significant broader issue, according to Lord Drayson, is the power of the visual imagery that satellite data can provide. Speaking of a visit to the US space agency (Nasa) early in his tenure as science minister, he recalled being shown satellite images.

"Actually seeing the data of the planet - for example, the outbreak of forest fires, the way in which the polar ice caps are receding - to see that data visually, for me it looked almost as if the Earth was breathing," he said.

"It really brings home to you the challenge that we have."

While arresting visual presentation of the state of the planet could inform public awareness as well as policymakers, the fact that the NCEO's mission combines space technology with environmental concerns could also inspire the next generation of researchers.

"I think we have in this project the coming together of two areas of science which have huge impact on young people," Lord Drayson said.

"Young people are very seized by the challenge that we face and want to be a part of the solution. This has a very potent effect in terms of being a lever by which we can really show the relevance and importance of science in the modern world and how it is actually addressing these issues."

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