Led by the UK, future space missions, known as Truths, will help reveal the true effects of climate change. Recently approved by the European Space Agency (ESA) at the Space19+ Ministerial Council meeting, the mission is a network of satellites and spacecraft aimed to track the effects of carbon (CO2) emissions on the planet.
The Earth’s climate cycle is an ever-changing one, with seven major glacial advances over three geological epochs and a sudden end to the ice age occurring 11,700 years ago. Typically, CO2 normally lags behind the warming during these cycles, however, in the current epoch CO2 drives the warming.
Today’s epoch is known as the Anthropocene, a term that was coined by Paul Crutzen in the year 2000. Crutzen diagnosed the negative impact large scale human activity has on the environment. Since then, climate scientists, researchers, and environmental groups have been pushing the research as studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals show over 97 percent of climate scientists agree: Human activity is most likely the main factor in climate-warming trends over the last century.
What is the ‘Truths’ mission?
Truths stands for Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies. Those backing the Truths missions expect the data to assist climate scientists in understanding today’s climate crisis and improve confidence in the projections of future cycles.
Scientists and engineers met at the ESA’s technical center in Harwell, Oxfordshire earlier this week to begin planning the project. Britain’s National Physics Laboratory (NPL) will take the scientific lead on the project as the ESA has set-aside €32.4m ($35.9m USD) for the initial design phase.
The NPL is a gate-keeper for high standards in scientific and engineering and their innovative research is the gold-standard. Where measurement science is concerned NPL lead the field holding the references for the international system of units (SI).
The NPL lab has the cutting-edge technology the space industry requires and can develop instruments that can assist space agencies with testing, mission design, operation of networks and the analysis of data. One such instrument is the cryogenic radiometer which enables a precise reading of the energy of a light source.
The Truths mission has set a priority in getting one of these instruments into orbit as the radiometer will allow scientists to map, in detail, the sunlight reflected off the Earth’s surface. This should in theory produce an intricate “climate fingerprint” that future missions can resample. According to an ESA statement, it will set up a kind of “standards laboratory in space.”
NPL will also develop a hyperspectral imager, an instrument which can measure incoming radiation from the Sun as well as the radiation the Earth reflects back in fine spectral detail. "By doing that we'll be able to detect subtle changes much earlier than we can with our current observing system. This will allow us to constrain and test the climate forecast models. So, we'll know earlier whether the predicted temperatures that the models are giving us are consistent or not with the observations." Stated Prof Nigel Fox from the National Physical Laboratory.
Measurements such as these would set the benchmark and reference datasets from Truths could serve to calibrate other satellite sensors, “such as those carried on the Copernicus missions,” according to the ESA.
Playing to Our Strengths
With the UK as the leading advocate for the missions it will also carry a majority of the costs of getting the mission off the ground. However, many at the UK Space Agency believe the mission plays to our strengths.
The UK has led global efforts to tackle climate change decarbonizing faster than any other country in the G20. “We like to think of ourselves leading on climate change so we should be providing the standard reference for Earth's radiation budget." said Beth Greenaway, the head of Earth observations and climate at the UK Space Agency
The UK is also leading another ESA backed mission known as FORUM. By mapping longer wavelengths in the far infrared climate scientists will gain further insight into the greenhouse effect.