On the 12th of November 2021, 145 countries met at the COP26 conference and committed to reducing deforestation by 2030. The endorsers collectively manage nearly 91% of the Earth’s forests, which is over 14 million square miles. Measuring areas this enormous and that are also hard to access is an incredible barrier to collecting information on the health of the Earth’s forests. The need is growing as studies show the Amazon rainforest is now releasing more carbon than it absorbs contributing to climate change. Accurately measuring the Earth’s biomass and the carbon cycle is difficult, but necessary, to curb climate change.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Biomass satellite will play a starring role as the first satellite to collect data in the P-band. Measuring biomass requires more than tree canopy information and includes all parts of the tree from the ground up. Highly forested areas and rainforests are naturally cloudy, cloaking these prime areas from satellite sensors. Calculations also need to assess the tree species among a dense forest. Biomass will collect data using a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in the P band, a long 70-centimeter wave that moves through clouds to the surface beneath, surmounting some of the most egregious challenges.
Airbus is supplying the bulk of the instrumentation except for the satellite’s reflector, which is coming from L3Harris. The impressive 12-meter-long radar just finished its final test and is headed to Europe to join the rest of the satellite for assembly. Due to its size, it’s not possible to test the radar on the ground and ESA relies on software modeling to predict in-orbit performance and determine the size of the radar, but the math on the ground never matches the result after deployment. Overestimating the size to account for a margin of error adds to the cost and complexity of a mission that already has a massive 12-meter radar. To better model the radar size, ESA teamed up with Denmark based TICRA, a small antenna software company already working to solve this problem through advanced computer modeling.
To verify the accuracy of Biomass, ESA is collecting 300 reference plots across the globe, a logistically laborious task requiring teams of people in the field measuring trees to validate biomass above the ground. ESA is working with the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), an organization made of national governments and organizations, to create a global database and validate the information collected from the Biomass satellite.
Once assembled, Biomass will make the trip to space in 2023. The 5-year mission will collect global forest data to better understand current carbon storage but also carbon emissions and fluctuations due to land-use changes and deforestation. Climate change can only be mitigated if everyone contributes to the cause and pours substantial resources into much needed solutions here on Earth. Billionaires will not deliver us to salvation.