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Germany, China to track greenhouse gases from space

Posted: September 8, 2010

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A German aerospace contractor and a Chinese research agency have signed a deal to jointly develop a satellite fleet to monitor greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, officials announced Wednesday.

Artist's concept of the CarbonSat constellation. Credit: OHB System
Signed Aug. 15, the memorandum of understanding is just a framework agreement for the so-called CarbonSat constellation. Officials still need more partners, including other European nations and the United States, to implement a network of multiple satellites, said Steffen Leuthold, a spokesperson for OHB System AG of Bremen, Germany.

OHB signed the agreement with the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications, a unit of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The partnership comes after other Chinese cooperative space projects with the European Space Agency, Russia and Brazil.

"This MoU is to build up the joint working group which then has to determine who's going to pay for it," Leuthold told Spaceflight Now.

The CarbonSat constellation would measure carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, gauging their contributions to rising global temperatures. The satellites could help implement a post-Kyoto Protocol designed to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions across the globe, according to an OHB System statement.

Greenhouse gases are produced by natural and human sources, including geological and biological activity and the burning of fossil fuels.

"Environmental protection is a global challenge and only global partnerships are able to achieve the results required to protect the Earth," said Berry Smutny, CEO of OHB System. "The Chinese involvement in this new German-Chinese partnership shows how seriously both sides are committed to the transparent implementation of the post-Kyoto Protocol."

Leuthold said at least six satellites would be necessary for daily high-resolution global coverage. OHB says other operating or proposed greenhouse gas missions either lack the resolution or wide coverage swath provided by CarbonSat.

OHB officials did not disclose the cost of the CarbonSat constellation.

"This partnership also demonstrates that space technology is playing an instrumental role in environmental protection," Smutny said in a press release. "This is because global monitoring of CO2 emissions is only possible from space. We hope that other nations will also become involved."

OHB's partners on CarbonSat already include the Institute of Environmental Physics at the University of Bremen, which helped design a new greenhouse gas measuring technique with support from the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, and Wirschaftsforderung Bremen, an economic development agency.

Japan's GOSAT spacecraft launched in January 2009 is returning data on carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, partly to measure international compliance with the Kyoto Protocol.

Industrialized nations under the Kyoto Protocol agreed to reduce greenhouse emissions by an average of 5 percent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2012.

International negotiations have stalled on a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory is due for launch in early 2013 to monitor natural sources and sinks of carbon. The satellite will replace an identical mission lost in a rocket failure during liftoff in February 2009.

A letter from the National Research Council last year supporting the approval of a replacement OCO mission said the craft could provide baseline data during the first few years of a new climate treaty.

OHB says the sharper resolution of the CarbonSat constellation will go a step beyond GOSAT and OCO by observing smaller-scale greenhouse gas sources such as individual cities, power and steel plants, volcanoes, pipelines, compressor stations, landfills, and oil and gas fields.