On 29 May 2024, EarthCARE, the most complex Earth Explorer space mission to date, was successfully launched to begin its task of scientific observations of clouds and aerosols. A joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency), EarthCARE carries four instruments that will provide new insights into the role clouds and aerosols play in regulating the Earth’s climate – an important part of the climate change science jigsaw that is currently little understood.

On World Environment Day 2024, we’re celebrating the contributions that Starion’s engineers across Europe have made to the EarthCARE mission from its early stages and the essential roles they played during the launch phase, which will continue as EarthCARE moves into its 6-month commissioning phase.

Why understanding clouds and aerosols matters

World Environment Day 2024 encourages awareness and action for the protection of the environment. The focus this year is on land restoration, desertification and drought resilience, all of which are major issues related to climate change.

The number and duration of droughts has increased by 29 per cent since 2000, and without urgent action, droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050 (source: United Nations). Improving our understanding of Earth’s climate is therefore essential and this includes the role played by clouds and aerosols (tiny particles, including dust and pollutants, that act as nuclei for cloud formation).

We all know clouds are vital for rainfall but they also reflect solar radiation back into space and trap infrared radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface, leading to either a net cooling or heating effect. It’s therefore important that we improve our understanding of how clouds and aerosols influence our climate.

“This is a very important mission for the scientific community, with instruments that are able to monitor aerosols, clouds and related information in a way that has not been possible before. It’s one of the most complex missions of its type, carrying four different instruments that will make many valuable measurements,” explained Starion’s Francesco Nisi, Service Manager at the ESA Centre of Earth Observation (ESRIN) in Italy.

About EarthCARE

EarthCARE was launched into a sun synchronous orbit at an altitude of around 393km – a height that balances the benefits of being as low as possible to optimise use of its instruments with the need to minimise the atmospheric drag that would impact fuel consumption.

It carries four state-of-the-art instruments that together will provide an overview of how clouds, aerosols and radiation operate:

  • Atmospheric lidar (light detection and ranging) system – measures vertical profile of aerosols and clouds in Earth’s atmosphere
  • Cloud profiling radar (JAXA) – observes the internal structure of clouds directly under the spacecraft
  • Multispectral imager – wider field view in multiple spectral bands; contributes to generation of three-dimensional cloud and aerosol field view
  • Broadband radiometer – measures reflected solar radiation and outgoing thermal radiation emitted by the Earth.

Starion providing essential support

Starion’s space mission experts have been providing support to the EarthCARE mission from the early stages following its inception, working from ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany and ESRIN. Starion’s MOIS tool suite was used at ESOC for operations preparation by the EarthCARE Flight Control Team.

Many Starion employees, who are part of a bigger engineering team working at ESRIN, have been involved in the payload data ground segment definition and development.

“At ESRIN, we’ve been involved in the EarthCARE mission from the start of the design and development phase, and are now busy with the commissioning phase, which will last around 6 months,” explains Stefano Aprile, EarthCARE PDGS System Engineer and AIV Coordinator. “I’ve been leading the team helping to ensure the end-to-end ground segment is consistent and meets the mission’s requirements. This involves verifying all the instruments are working properly, calibrating their output and testing mission plans and procedures are ready to move into the operational phase.

“This is typical of the work we do here because we support other Earth Explorers and Earth Watch too, both operational and in development, including Biomass, FLEX, FORUM and Altius.”

At ESTEC, Emilio Alvarez, EarthCARE Spacecraft and AIT/AIV System Engineer, is one of the Starion team involved in the launch and early operations phase (LEOP) and the satellite platform and payload commissioning phase. During LEOP he was ESA LEOP Team Lead for one of the two project support teams, responsible for coordinating and acting as the technical focal point for a multidisciplinary team of 14 expert engineers. Now, during the commissioning phase, he is part of the core team for platform commissioning and is Commissioning Team Lead for the broadband radiometer instrument.

“The LEOP activities were more complex than usual because of constraints related to one of the instruments,” explains Emilio. “We had been training for months across many different scenarios so that we would be ready for any contingency.”

Among the Starion staff at ESOC working in the EarthCARE Flight Control Team are David Fornarelli, AOCS (Attitude and Orbit Control System) Spacecraft Engineer, Matteo Ruaro, Platform Spacecraft Operations Engineer, and Alessandro Latino, who were also involved in LEOP and now in the commissioning phase. This includes some of the most complex and challenging operations after launch, such as the solar array deployment and satellite attitude control.

The thrill of success

“Having worked on a mission for so long, it’s a relief when the launch is successful! It’s completely absorbing and you feel closely involved. The team here put so much energy into this that it’s like your baby, and a successful launch gives value to what you’ve worked on for years,” says Stefano.

Emilio adds: “I’ve been involved in the EarthCARE mission for 4 years and we have been working hard to get to this point. Even though this wasn’t my first launch, it was really exciting!”

“After months of preparation using simulations, we knew we were ready, but it was still very tense as we have to be fast to react to any event during and after launch. It was very exciting though, as this was my first launch!,” Matteo says.

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Image above: Artist’s impression of EarthCARE over Europe (credit: ESA)