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Responding to Climate Change 2011

Home | Tools & Technology | Thales Alenia Space

Satellites incentivise environmental policies

Thales Alenia Space

Thales Alenia Space image

For decades our planet has been monitored by satellites with weather forecasting as a primary function. As scientists understood more about the complex systems affecting weather cycles, they explored climate forecasting, which required even more data and measurements to feed the most intricate digital models ever developed.

Satellites play a key role in this since they are the only tools which provide a global, coherent view of our world, updated regularly over years and years. As science and technology advance, new information becomes available, from ocean altimetry to soil moisture and trace gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Thales Alenia Space has been a leading contributor to this industry since the 1970s. They have developed cutting-edge technologies to provide scientists with the best data harvested from innovative sensors to feed these models and support predictions.

Last year’s Copenhagen Summit proved that, no matter how impressive the challenges overcome and results obtained were, they were not enough. Since then, environmental data has continued to flow in and many new indicators have been introduced, as new sensors have been brought into operation.

Thales Alenia Space is again at the forefront of the exploration of these new domains of remote sensing, and intends to support such data collection efforts for the years to come, improving the projections for climate evolution as well as the assessment of the real effects of the past and current policies introduced by governments worldwide.

The climate watchdogs

Earlier this year, Thales Alenia Space was selected to develop the third generation Meteosat satellites, ensuring the continuity of Eumetsat’s geostationary weather monitoring capacity well into the 2030s. This is the reward of decades of dedication to the highest quality through innovation and sound industrial partnership.

The company was already at the helm when Meteosat was introduced by the European Space Agency (ESA) in the mid-1970s. These first generation satellites set the standards for weather watch for more than 20 years. The second generation, also developed by Thales Alenia Space, was launched in 2002 and, again considered the most efficient tool for geostationary survey.

In 2016, the newest Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) will further push the art of weather watching. The satellite family will include two varieties: one dedicated to multispectral imagery of the globe with a high-repeat time and the other to hyperspectral sounding of the atmosphere. They will also carry Sentinel sensors on behalf of the ESA/European Union Global Monitoring for Environment & Security (GMES) initiative.

Increasing the amount of historical data will help climatologists understand how our world may evolve. As prime contractor for three generations of Meteosats, Thales Alenia Space will continue delivering weather surveys to about one half of humankind. This continuous survey, updated every 15 minutes today, every ten minutes tomorrow, provides evidence of climate change and may be one of the ways to knock down barriers to the new policies the world needs to support the livelihoods of future generations.

Taking the pulse of the water cycle

Jason satellite © NASA
Jason satellite © NASA

Monitoring the vast oceanic circulation engine that drives heat exchanges in our atmosphere and seas is of vital importance too. The recent ordering of Thales Alenia Space’s Jason-3 satellite for oceanography is only the latest in an adventure that started 18 years ago with the launch of the first Poseidon altimeter – designed and built by Thales Alenia Space – on the Topex mission jointly conducted by NASA and CNES, the French space agency.

This altimetry mission, and the Jason follow-on series, was an incredible success, first by identifying the mechanisms of the thermohaline circulation, the so-called Great Ocean Conveyor, but also by revealing the deep variability of oceans, illustrated through events such as the dramatic El Niño effect in Southern Pacific, noted for its ripple effects on the global climate.

The company’s efforts extend beyond this to monitoring the overall water cycle for the ESA Earth Explorer missions. Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor on the ambitious GOCE mission that maps the Geoid with an unprecedented accuracy, and a key player on the SMOS satellite, which is surveying sea surface salinity (a major driver of currents) as well as the moisture of land soils (that will affect local weather and vegetation). The company also provided the Siral interferometric radar altimeter for the Cryosat mission that maps the thickness of land and sea ice at the poles, thus determining how much fresh water is introduced to oceanic circulation and how it could affect the overall balance.

It is also supporting the joint NASA/CNES Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission which will provide the first global survey of Earth’s surface water, observe the fine details of the ocean’s and terrestrial water surfaces topography and determine how water bodies (rivers, lakes and wetlands) evolve through time.

Tracking down greenhouse gases

What is at stake goes well beyond pure science and knowledge; it prepares the ground for overdue policies to ensure this world will be a good place to live for generations to come. Not only should the drivers of today’s and tomorrow’s climate be well understood, but also the effects of our policies have to be clearly identified and measured.

Mapping greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations is absolutely necessary – particularly carbon monoxide and dioxide – if we want to quantify how much carbon is actually removed from the atmosphere by carbon sinks like forests or plankton, and if we want to make sure the offset policy with its emissions market and rights sold by the least polluting countries makes any sense. Our first port of call is to better understand the ratio between natural and human GHG emissions.

As the leading provider for sensors and observation platforms for almost every environmental monitoring and Earth observation programme in Europe, Thales Alenia Space has already developed some of the key technologies to make this possible. The IASI instrument, developed for Eumetsat’s MetOp polar satellites, could be adapted to monitor carbon monoxide and dioxide, and also atmospheric methane concentrations with the required sensibility and resolution.

Thales Alenia Space is proud to have delivered decades of high-quality observations on which environmental policies can be based. It is ready to provide the instruments to assess their short and long-term effectiveness. These will give the best projections to political leaders and the citizens who appoint them. This contribution to global efforts will help keep our climate in a survivable balance and improve the life conditions of the millions people affected by climate change.

Thales Alenia Space at a glance
Europe’s leading satellite manufacturer, with nine industrial sites in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium, EUR2 billion in 2009 revenues and over 7,200 employees worldwide. It designs, produces and markets satellite systems for communications, defence, Earth observation, navigation and space science.

Prime contractor for multiple environmental missions:
  • Meteosat with first, second (MSG) and now third (MTG) generations (weather)
  • Jason (oceanography)
  • Calipso (aerosols)
  • GOCE (gravitometry)
  • SMOS (water cycle)
  • Cosmo-Skymed (radar imagery)
  • Sentinel 1 (radar imagery)
  • Sentinel 3 (oceanography)

Prime contractor for advanced Earth observation payloads:

  • Meris on Envisat (ocean color and land coverage)
  • Vegetation 1 and 2 on Spot (vegetation cover)
  • IASI on Metop (atmospheric profiles)
  • Siral on Cryosat (ice thickness)
  • SAR on Kompsat 5 (radar imagery)
  • HR Imager on Helios and Pléiades (optical imagery)

Major contractor on other Earth observation missions:

  • Radarsat 2 (radar imagery)

Thales Alenia Space logo
Thales Alenia Space

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