Help us better understand the carbon cycleThe more we know about our planet and how its ecosystems function, the better we should be able to protect it (or at least know if what we're doing is working or not working). To that end, the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to launch a new satellite called Biomass (the 7th in the Earth Explorer mission). Using innovative sensors, it will be able to map and monitor the Earth's forests and calculate how much biomass and carbon they contain.
We only have poor data on this, especially for the tropics, an extremely important zone for our planet. Having better data on tropical forest biomass and carbon storage will also be necessary to properly implement the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) program and better fight global warming.
Biomass will be a 1.2-tonne satellite at launch, meaning it will probably go up on Esa's new Vega rocket, which successfully conducted only its second flight overnight.
Its sole instrument will send down a 70cm radar pulse that will penetrate the leafy canopies of forests but scatter back off the large woody parts of trees. It will sense the volume of material at a resolution of about 200m. In essence, it will be able to weigh the amount of carbon tied up in the world's forests.
A 12m reflector antenna will be needed to capture the return signal from the radar pulse.
An antenna of this size has to be folded for launch to fit inside the Vega vehicle, and then unfurled once the satellite has reached its 650km-high orbit. (source)
Launch is planned for 2020.