Satellite blasts off on mission to map the Earth's melting ice

CryoSat-2 to determine the effects of polar climate change

A A A

A hi-tech European satellite designed to measure how fast the Earth's polar ice caps are melting was successfully launched into orbit yesterday, nearly five years after the first attempt at such a mission ended in spectacular failure.

CryoSat-2, which was designed and built in France and Germany but masterminded by British scientists, blasted off on a Russian launcher rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan shortly before 3pm yesterday afternoon. Some time later, a tracking station in Africa picked up the satellite's signal, confirming that it had gone into orbit.

It was a far cry from the last attempt in October 2005, when the original £100m CryoSat was lost after an apparently successful launch, when the Russian rocket failed to separate from its third stage, and the whole assembly, including its satellite, plunged into the Arctic Ocean – the very waters whose icy secrets CryoSat had been designed to uncover.

Yesterday there was jubilation among the scientists of the European Space Agency (ESA) who tracked the launch from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

"If anything, this mission is even more important now than a decade ago when we first proposed it, as changes in the Earth's polar ice sheets are accelerating," said Professor Duncan Wingham of University College London, CryoSat's principal investigator and the man behind the whole enterprise.

CryoSat-2 is part of the ESA's Earth Explorers programme, involving seven spacecraft which will carry out innovative research about issues of pressing environmental concern. The melting ice of the poles and Greenland is considered one of the most pressing of all, with implications for ocean circulation patterns, the global climate and sea levels.

If the land-based Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely, it would mean a global sea-level rise of 21 feet, while if all of the Earth's polar ice and glaciers were to melt, sea levels could rise by more than 10 times that amount.

Scientists have been observing significant changes in the polar regions in recent years which are generally ascribed to the warming climate, and in September 2007 the extent of summer ice cover in the Arctic Ocean reached a record low level.

However, too little is known about how thick the ice is, although surveys of sea-ice thickness undertaken by submarines suggest ice draft – the amount of water the floating Arctic ice displaces – may have reduced by about 40 per cent since the 1960s and 1970s.

The 1500lb satellite is designed to pinpoint the effects of climate change on Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic ice volumes, using sophisticated radar technology. Satellites have long been used to track ice extent, but calculating the waterborne ice thickness means the satellite has to gauge the difference between the top of the ice surface and the top of the water, which allows the overall volume then to be calculated.

The melting of the ice also changes the sea's salinity, which can affect long-range ocean currents. If the Gulf Stream became weaker, the British Isles and north-west Europe would experience more severe winters, even though the world as a whole would be warming.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links