Crucial Satellites Used To Monitor Ice Caps Are Going To Die Before They Can Be Replaced

by : Daniel Richardson on : 30 Nov 2020 14:20
Crucial Satellites Used To Monitor Ice Caps Are Going To Die Before They Can Be ReplacedPA/ESA

Monitoring ice levels is an essential part of how we understand our impact on the Earth. However, the two satellites that give scientists data on the ice caps are set to die before a replacement can be sent up to continue the work.

At the moment, the European CryoSat-2 and American ICESat-2 are the only two satellites that are monitoring the state of the ice caps. The satellites uniquely fly 88 degrees north and south from the equator and this allows them to get a view of Arctic and Antarctic regions. The two satellites only miss a very small are, 430km in diameter at the poles, and otherwise give scientists invaluable data about the impact of global warming.


Due to this orbit, it is difficult to have a satellite readily take the place of either machine and it seems that a replacement may be needed in the future.

ice cap monitoring faces issuesESA/NASA

Most satellites do not go above 83 degrees from the equator and, as a result, do not provide the visibility that the current satellites provide. The concern of scientists is that the existing satellites will be decommissioned before a replacement can be sent to space, and this is because of technical issues.

The CyroSat-2 was launched in 2010, and it was expected to work for at least three and a half years. The satellite has already outlived initial plans, but with battery decay and fuel supplies, it is expected to stop operating in 2024. Equally, the ICESat-2 is expected to last for the next decade, yet scientists are concerned that a gap in data will reduce the ability to assess the impact of global warming.


Dr Josef Aschbacher, the director of Earth observation at ESA, explained to BBC News the issues the agency was facing and how they planned to overcome them by using a satellite codenamed Cristal:

This is a concern; we recognise it, we’ve put plans in motion to build Cristal as quick as we can. Despite Covid, despite heavy workloads and video conferences by everyone – we have gone through the evaluation… and Cristal was kicked off in early September.


Cristal will have added features like a dual-frequency radar altimeter. However, a full budget has not been allocated to the satellite because of the eight-year period before it would be operational. With this in mind, it is understandable that scientists are concerned about data being missed in the coming years.


One solution may be a European ‘CryoBridge’, which is an airborne radar altimeter that costs £4.5 million. This may not have the technological advances of upcoming satellites, but it would allow for consistent data.

It seems that scientists will have a challenge in the coming years, and many will hope that going forward contingency plans are made for current satellites that provide invaluable data.

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Daniel Richardson

After graduating from university, Dan went on to work with a variety of tech startups and media outlets. Through working with the likes of Game Rant, The Hook and What Culture, Dan pursued his interests in technology. The skills he picked up along the way are now being utilised with UNILAD.

Topics: Technology, ice, NASA, Now, Satellites, Tech