June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

SpaceX to launch ESA's EarthCARE on Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base – Spaceflight Now

A rendering of the Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage as the payload fairings deploy. Graphic: ESA

The European Space Agency is preparing to launch its latest Earth observation satellite, designed to better understand the climate. The Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) has four instruments that will study clouds and aerosols around Earth “to improve the accuracy of climate models and support numerical weather prediction.”

The ESA spacecraft will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base. Takeoff is scheduled for 3:20 pm PDT (6:20 pm EDT, 2220 UTC).

Spaceflight Now will have live coverage starting about 30 minutes before takeoff.

The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this mission, tail number B1081 in the SpaceX fleet, will launch for the seventh time. Previously launched Crew-7; SpaceX's 29th Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-29); NASA's Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and Ocean Ecosystem (PACE); the Transporter-10 rideshare mission; and two Starlink flights (6-34 and 8-1).

A little less than eight minutes after takeoff, B1081 will return to VSFB to land at Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4). This will be the 19th landing on LZ-4 and the 314th booster landing to date.

The Airbus-built Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) spacecraft is locked in a clean room before being shipped to California for launch. Image: Airbus

The spacecraft was originally scheduled to be launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket. ESA announced a launch agreement with Arianespace in October 2019 and noted a launch window opening in June 2022 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. However, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher announced in October 2022 that EarthCARE would be launched on the European Vega-C rocket.

Plans changed again when a static fire test on the way to Vega-C's return to flight campaign sidelined that rocket until probably late 2024. That caused ESA to once again change plans and then the mission was assigned to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.

Europe's loss of Soyuz and lack of its own launchers set many other spacecraft on paths similar to EarthCARE. SpaceX has already been chosen to launch Euclid in 2023, two Galileo missions (the first of which launched in late April) and Hera, which will launch in October 2024.

Clouds and aerosols

The EarthCARE spacecraft's goals bear some resemblance to NASA's PACE spacecraft, which launched earlier this year using the same Falcon 9 booster. Both satellites are designed to increase understanding of cloud formation and the role of the atmosphere in the general climate.

EarthCARE is also a joint effort between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which provided one of the spacecraft's four main instruments. Following JAXA tradition, the satellite has a Japanese nickname: Hakuryu (White Dragon in Japanese).

The spacecraft weighs about 2,200 kg (4,850 lb) and has a total length of about 17.2 m (56.4 ft). It will be deployed in a sun-synchronous Earth orbit at an altitude of 393 km and an inclination of 97.05°. It is designed to completely cover the Earth every 25 days and has an expected life of at least three years (including a six-month commissioning period).

JAXA's contribution is the Cloud Profiling Radar instrument, as well as data processing for the instrument while in orbit. The CPR is one of EarthCARE's two active instruments, along with the Atmospheric Lidar.

The CPR is a Doppler-capable radar, featuring a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) antenna, which can peer through light precipitation and clouds “providing detailed information on its vertical structure and velocity, size distribution of particles and water content”, according to ESA.

Clouds play a crucial role in Earth's climate system by reflecting sunlight back into space, known as the albedo effect, and by trapping heat radiating from the Earth's surface, part of the greenhouse effect. Graphic: ESA

The Atmospheric Lidar is a half-ton instrument that uses about 500 watts to generate a laser beam of ultraviolet wavelength. Combined with CPR and EarthCARE's multispectral imager, it can “obtain cloud top heights and aerosol physical properties, as well as classification of various atmospheric components.”

The spacecraft's two passive instruments are the multispectral imager and the broadband radiometer. The MI is designed to collect images with a resolution of 500 m (1,640.4 ft) over a swath of 150 km (93.2 mi).

The imager also has seven channels: visible, near infrared, two shortwave infrared, and three thermal infrared.

“These images provide context to help interpret measurements made by EarthCARE's two active instruments, lidar and radar, which collect information only from a thin curtain beneath the satellite, and to extend that information to 3D scenes,” the agency said. THAT.

Finally, the broadband radiometer “provides precise measurements of reflected solar and emitted thermal radiation, co-located with views from cloud profiling radar and atmospheric lidar.” To do this, it uses three telescopes (looking forward, backward, and nadir) “to derive the fluxes at the top of the atmosphere over a broad band of wavelengths.”

The Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) encapsulated within the payload fairings of the Falcon 9 ahead of launch on May 28, 2024. Image: SpaceX via ESA

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