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ESA Will Launch $524m BIOMASS Orbiter To Monitor Earth's Forests

May 07, 2013 01:16 PM EDT

A 400-million Euro ($524,400,000) Earth observation mission was given a green light by the European Space Agency (ESA) Tuesday, signaling for the first time an attempt to measure global forest biomass from space. 

Scheduled to launch in 2019, BIOMASS, as the project is known, will carry a special radar system that can sense trunks and big branches of trees from orbit.

The radar will help produce accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass from space, which will address fundamental questions about changes in forest structure, especially in tropical regions, where ground data are scant.

The five-year mission will use the BIOMASS system to calculate the amount of carbon stored in the world's forests and monitor any changes over the course of the mission.

"Understanding how the amount of living material - biomass - in our global forests changes over time is necessary for improving present and future assessments of the global carbon cycle, and therefore our climate," said professor Shaun Quegan of the University of Sheffield, who is credited with conceiving the mission concept, a news release stated.

"Biomass will give us unprecedented knowledge on the state of the world's forests and how they are changing," Quegan told BBC News. "This will give us a firm basis for treaties that aim to help developing countries preserve their forests, such as the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. In addition, Biomass will return information on national forestry resources, and that's important for things like energy and biodiversity."

The BIOMASS project is the latest of a series of the ESA's "Earth Explorers" project, which is designed to do innovative science to obtain data of environmental concern, the BBC reported.

Oddly, the BIOMASS satellite will not be allowed to operate over North America, Europe or the Arctic. The U.S. Department of Defense says that the spacecraft's radar with missile early-warning and space-tracking systems, the BBC reported.

But Quegan said the loss of coverage would not severely impact the project.

"It doesn't affect the whole of Eurasia where the big arboreal forests are found; and it doesn't affect the temperate forests of China where the biggest re-growth on the planet is occurring. And in terms of REDD countries, we lose just a handful," Quegan told the BBC. 

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