Biomass-Huge Space Umbrella to “Weigh” Forests On Earth

Anurag Sharma
Anurag Sharma

Updated · Sep 26, 2022

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Although it resembles a huge umbrella, there is no rain where it is going.

To “balance” Earth’s trees, this enormous reflector-antenna is being sent into space.

It is a crucial part of the Biomass mission, which is to determine the worldwide distribution of forest Above-Ground Biomass (AGB), being built by the European Space Agency at British aerospace company, Airbus.

The 12m by 15m wire-mesh membrane of the space brolly, when unfolded, will function as a very unique P-band radar system.

Because of its vast wavelength, it is unique.

At 70 cm, it can see beneath the leaf cover of forests to map its woody structures, including all of its trunks and branches.

The 1.2-tonne satellite will examine cuts through trees on subsequent passes to generate an image of how much woody substance is present using a method analogous to tomography, more like used in a CT scan.

Every six months, worldwide maps must be prepared.

In order to identify patterns, Biomass will collect data for at least five years.

A two-way valve in the earth’s climate, trees; they absorb a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, but trees also tend to emit this stored CO2, when they burn up or eventually die.

However, exact figures for the flow via this valve, either way, are difficult to come by.

According to Prof. Shaun Quegan, the project’s lead researcher from the University of Sheffield, “this mission is about gaining a much better hold on the function of forests, in either releasing carbon dioxide via destruction, or absorbing up carbon dioxide through growth.”

The researcher from the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) told BBC News that the amount now being released from forests is uncertain by 50% or more, and he believes that 50% may be optimistic.

L3Harris Technologies engineers have been on site at Airbus in Stevenage to supervise the affixing of the antenna-reflector to the bus, or main body, of the satellite.

“These big, unfoldable devices are L3Harris’ specialty, and we don’t currently have that expertise in Europe.”

On Monday, the engineers conducted a “pop and catch” experiment to evaluate how well the mechanism will deploy the antenna and its 7-meter boom once the spacecraft is in orbit.

“Pyrotechnics set off a pin in space, which is subsequently propelled by a motor. This test’s goal is to make sure the antenna securely clears the spacecraft’s side “Carl Warren, the head engineer at Airbus, explained.

To reach to this level, Biomass has travelled a long way.

The science dates back to the late 1980s when a woodland in Eastern England was swept over by an experimental P-band radar to demonstrate its viability.

However, at that time, it seemed unlikely that such a system would ever reach space because its specific radar frequencies were set aside for military applications.

To keep an eye out for missiles reaching North America and Northern Europe, the US uses the same band.

To convince the International Telecommunications Union to allow a brief window in this delicate region of the electromagnetic spectrum for a scientific purpose, a case needs to be established.

Biomass will never be allowed to be used over the western northern latitudes, even now.

Nevertheless, due to the fact that the forest statistics in those areas of the world are already rather reliable, Prof. Quegan is not overly concerned about this constraint.

The main areas of ambiguity are found in Asia and the tropics, where Biomass can freely use its tool.

Currently, in the Stevenage cleanroom, the radar instrument’s electronics are separated from the spacecraft. They are suspended from a panel that is poised to be fastened to the bus’s side.

After that is finished, Biomass will travel to Airbus in Toulouse for inspection, according to Vicki Lonnon, the project’s Airbus quality assurance manager.

The satellite will be rocked and will be placed in a thermal vacuum to mimic release vibrations and mimic space conditions respectively.

The launch of the Vega rocket is anticipated to take place by the end of 2023, from a height of slightly over 660 kilometres; from here Biomass will map the planet.

Anurag Sharma

Anurag Sharma

He has been helping in business of varied scales, with key strategic decisions. He is a specialist in healthcare, medical devices, and life-science, and has accurately predicted the trends in the market. Anurag is a fervent traveller, and is passionate in exploring untouched places and locations. In his free time, he loves to introspect and plan ahead.