If you could collect all the world’s trees and put them on a scale, what would they weigh? Even trickier, could you determine exactly how much carbon they contain? While no one could ever literally perform this task, scientists have devised an ingenious way to track this sustainable resource on the earth’s surface. In 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch a satellite dedicated to collecting this data about the earth’s biomass. Learn about this satellite’s unique mission below, including how it will collect data and how it will benefit the biomass industry.
What Is the Biomass Satellite?
The upcoming satellite to track biomass will be known, appropriately, as Biomass. This satellite is a joint project of the European Space Agency, Space UK, and Airbus Defence, a private aerospace engineering company. Biomass is part of a larger ESA initiative known as Earth Explorer. The Earth Explorer missions aim to gather data about earth, including its gravitational field, water supply, weather patterns, interior structure, magnetic field, and useable resources. The ESA has already launched some satellites with sensitive, specialized tools capable of measuring these qualities and tracking how they change over time. Biomass will be similar to the previous satellites, but its mission focuses exclusively on measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests. Trees contain a lot of carbon naturally, but they also absorb carbon when they take in carbon dioxide as an essential ingredient for photosynthesis. Consequently, their carbon levels can fluctuate over time.
How Will the Biomass Satellite Gather Data?
Biomass will use a gigantic 1.2-ton satellite with special radar equipment that can measure carbon in biomass structures, such as trees. Currently, scientists have very little information about how much carbon trees hold, particularly in dense tropical forests. Biomass will help clear up that scientific blind spot. The Biomass satellite will also be capable of determining how far the forest floor lies beneath the upper canopy of trees. That data will be useful for scientists who are curious about geology in hard-to-explore or even uncharted areas. The satellite will also track some data about glacial ice sheets. It should be noted that because of the type of radar it will use, Biomass is not currently authorized to gather data over North America, Europe, or the Arctic. However, those limits will not prevent Biomass from collecting the most needed information about carbon levels in the globe’s thickest forests.
What Does the ESA Plan to Do With Biomass Data?
As mentioned above, carbon levels in trees can change over time. The ESA wants to determine where and to what degree those changes occur in earth’s forests, so they plan to keep the Biomass satellite in space for five years. During that time, it should gather a large sample showing how trees’ carbon levels change during multiple growth cycles. Scientists will use the data from Biomass to better understand earth’s carbon cycle. Like the water cycle, the carbon cycle is a natural system that allows carbon to be reused and form different compounds. For example, photosynthesis is the part of the carbon cycle in which carbon dioxide in the air becomes oxygen and sugar that plants use as food. Carbon also exists in the atmosphere, the soil, and the oceans. The carbon cycle contributes to keeping the earth in a state of equilibrium that can support life. Despite the importance of this cycle, scientists still have questions about the role trees play in regulating the carbon cycle. The Biomass satellite will help them understand that role better. Similarly, ESA’s scientists also want to help countries preserve their forests and make wise choices about the forms of energy they use. The Biomass satellite should provide further evidence that fossil fuel use should be continually replaced with alternative, sustainable forms of energy.
How Will the Satellite Benefit the Biomass Industry?
Although the Biomass satellite will not launch until 2021, it represents another development in the growing global focus on alternative forms of energy. As the satellite is built and prepares to launch, more nations and private corporations may hear about it and begin looking at biomass as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Once the satellite collects data and scientists interpret that data, companies within the biomass industry can further adapt their technologies in accordance with the findings. For example, Biomass-collected data may show how reforestation and afforestation practices affect the carbon cycle. Forest managers and wood pellet producers can use that information to refine their methods and make them more sustainable and eco-friendly. However, all the ways the Biomass satellite will affect the biomass industry are not clear at present. After all, the industry will continue to evolve in the years leading up to the launch and during the time the satellite gathers information. Still, the Biomass satellite should be an important contributor to the sustainable energy field.