ESA’s EarthCARE satellite launched aboard a Space X Falcon 9 to explore complex cloud physics and improve climate models

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ESA's EarthCARE satellite launched aboard a Space X Falcon 9 to explore complex cloud physics and improve climate models

Sent into orbit aboard a Space X Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the European Space Agency has successfully launched EarthCARE or Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer, an advanced cloud-research satellite.

Designed to study cloud dynamics, it will soon be providing climate scientists and meteorologists with accurate data about the complex interactions between clouds, aerosols and radiation, helping them devise better climate models, predict extreme weather events and provide more accurate assessments of future warming, helping guide climate science and policy. “Clouds are the largest source of uncertainty in climate prediction, “says Robin Hogan, principal scientist at the European centre for medium-range weather forecasts (ECMWF). “EarthCARE is going to give us much, much more detail about the actual properties of clouds, so enable us to understand them, to hopefully narrow this range of uncertainty”, Says Hogan.

EarthCARE deploys a suite of instruments including radar, lidar, and a broadband radiometer which provide insight into cloud dynamics, the role of aerosols and how different formations contribute to planetary warming or cooling depending on whether they reflect the sun’s radiation or absorb it.

The onboard radar penetrates deep into clouds, measuring the speed of particles in the atmosphere. This enables researchers to better understand precipitation and how air rises inside clouds, a driver of thunderstorms. The lidar instrument uses ultraviolet light to detect ice and aerosols in clouds, and, for the first time discern differences in sizes and types of particles from soot to sea salt, sand or other pollutants, giving detailed information on the impact they have on atmospheric heating and cooling, which is measured by the broadband radiometer.

The satellite will now undergo a calibration phase to test the validity of the onboard instruments before scientific data collection can begin, a process expected towards the end of the year. “We’ve got lots of scientific work to do, of course,” says Hogan, “but we’ve got every reason to believe that this is going to be a step change in our understanding of how we should represent clouds in our climate models to make better predictions of climate in the future.”

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