An instrument for measuring sea surface temperatures from space, developed jointly by Australian and UK scientists, has been successfully launched today aboard the European earth observation satellite ENVISAT.
Measurement of global sea surface temperatures is integral to climate modelling and forecasting and the $40 million satellite instrument will, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) substantially boost Australia’s contribution to international climate and environmental science.
The Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer (AATSR) is one of ten different scientific instruments aboard ENVISAT, launched from French Guyana on March 1. It will reportedly provide the most accurate measurements yet from space of sea surface temperatures.
The sensor is the culmination of a joint development program by Australian and UK scientists over the past 20 years. With a $13 million investment by the Federal Government and CSIRO, it represents the largest Australian involvement in developing an international scientific instrument.
‘Remote sensing through satellite observations is now a powerful science tool in the way we investigate regional and global climate changes,’ said Dr Ian Barton who leads CSIRO’s research team with Dr Fred Prata.
‘Sea surface temperate observations of the tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans are an essential component of our climate forecasts.
In tandem with the radiometer, scientists will also use information from other satellite instruments such as the scatterometer and altimeter to estimate sub-surface ocean temperatures as well as wind speeds and direction at the ocean surface. These factors affect sea surface temperatures and the way in which ocean currents drive vast pools of warm water around the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans.
Applications of AATSR data will also provide Australian resource managers and industry with a better understanding of ocean health by measurements of plankton, marine resources industries such as fisheries and shipping.
Participation in the instruments’ development ensures Australian access to data from all instruments aboard ENVISAT.
The accuracy of instruments’ data is regularly checked and calibrated against information obtained from research ships, commercial shipping participating in a voluntary ocean measurement program, and the new range of autonomous robotic floats now being deployed throughout the world’s oceans.
The AATSR is the third instrument of its type developed in a British-Australian partnership, which began in 1980. Earlier versions of the instrument flew aboard the first European Space Agency environmental satellites, ERS-1, launched in 1991, and ERS-2 which continues to provide ocean images to research agencies such as CSIRO after seven years in space.
Over a 35-day cycle, ENVISAT’s orbit will cover the entire planet, and then start all over again. Two thirds of the time it will be over water. Because of the sheer size of the oceanic currents, the complexity of thermal exchanges, and ocean-atmosphere coupling, the ocean is a crucial factor in explaining the way our planet’s climate operates and how it is changing.
Dr Barton said Australian science also has a strong interest in other instruments, including those that generate additional atmospheric and ocean data for climate modelling and forecasting.
Data from some of the instruments on ENVISAT will be received at the Tasmanian Earth Receiving Satellite Station, located east of Hobart.