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EarthCARE satellite will reveal the climate effects of clouds

As the conversation about climate change intensifies, the EarthCARE satellite is poised to address a pressing question: Will clouds cool or warm our planet in the future?

EarthCARE is a joint mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan’s JAXA space agency. The satellite, which was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg base on May 28, aims to deepen our understanding of clouds and their profound effects on Earth’s climate.

“EarthCARE, the most complex of all of ESA’s Earth Explorer missions, will quantify and reduce the uncertainty about the role that clouds and aerosols play in heating and cooling Earth’s atmosphere – contributing to our better understanding of climate change,” noted ESA.

“Understanding and monitoring Earth’s radiation balance is crucial for addressing climate-related issues and is something that can only be done from space.”

Behind EarthCARE’s mission

At an altitude of nearly 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth, the two-ton satellite will embark on a three-year journey to construct a detailed atmospheric profile.

This endeavor will illuminate the characteristics and behaviors of the diverse cloud forms – from the low-hovering cumulus to the towering cumulonimbus clouds.

Clouds play a dual role in our atmosphere. White, bright cumulus clouds, composed of water droplets, float relatively low in the sky and act as a cooling parasol by reflecting solar radiation back into space.

In contrast, higher altitude cirrus clouds, made of ice crystals, allow solar radiation to pass through, warming the Earth, and then trap the heat, functioning like a thermal blanket.

Dominique Gillieron, who leads ESA’s Earth observation projects, emphasized the significance of clouds in climate dynamics, noting their substantial yet poorly understood influence on climate change.

According to Gillieron, the variability in cloud formation across different latitudes and altitudes makes predicting their impact even more challenging.

Unique capabilities of EarthCARE

EarthCARE is set to revolutionize our understanding of the atmosphere as the first satellite to measure clouds’ vertical and horizontal distributions.

Simonetta Cheli, Director of ESA’s Earth observation programs, emphasized the satellite’s unique capabilities.

“EarthCARE is the most complex of ESA’s research missions to date. Its development, and now launch, is thanks to close cooperation with our JAXA partners, who contributed the satellite’s cloud profiling radar instrument, and all of the space industry teams involved,” said Cheli.

“The mission comes at a critical time when advancing our scientific knowledge is more important than ever to understand and act on climate change, and we very much look forward to receiving its first data.”

EarthCARE will compile a comprehensive cloud dataset

Equipped with advanced instruments, EarthCARE will probe the depths of clouds using a Lidar instrument that emits laser pulses to measure clouds and atmospheric aerosols – tiny particles that serve as cloud precursors.

Additionally, the satellite’s radar can penetrate clouds to determine their water content and monitor their movement speed, akin to how terrestrial radar detects speeding vehicles.

These technological advancements will also allow the satellite to assess the shape and temperature of clouds, compiling the most comprehensive cloud dataset from a satellite perspective to date.

Implications for climate science

The scientific community is on the edge of its seat, awaiting the data that EarthCARE will deliver. This information is crucial for refining climate models that predict the rate of global warming. Understanding how solar radiation interacts with clouds is key to grasping and mitigating the effects of human-induced global warming.

The mission will explore whether the cooling effect of clouds – currently more significant than their warming effect – will intensify or weaken. According to Gillieron, the changing distribution of clouds due to global warming makes this trend increasingly unpredictable.

“EarthCARE is being launched at an even more crucial time than when it was first conceived in 2004,” said Cheli, highlighting the growing urgency to address climate change effectively.

As the satellite moves into orbit, the insights it promises to deliver are not just scientific but pivotal in shaping our strategies against a warming world. This mission is about securing a sustainable future for Earth beneath the ever-changing clouds.


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