European satellite ERS-2 returns to earth after almost 30 years

This week we watched along with many across the globe, as pioneer European satellite ERS-2 finally made its journey back to earth after almost 30 years monitoring earth from the sky.

For many current and former CPOM scientists, this was an emotional moment, as the data from this satellite has made (and continues to make) an integral contribution to understanding the cryosphere. In fact, CPOM Director Professor Andrew Shepherd used ERS-2 data for his first paper 23 years ago ‘Inland Thinning of Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica’ which used satellite altimetry and interferometry to show that the glacier ‘had thinned by up to 1.6 meters per year between 1992 and 1999’.

Part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) earth observation programme, the revolutionary satellite was launched in April 1995 into a sun-synchronous polar orbit at an altitude of around 800 km, and was one of the most powerful and sophisticated satellites of its time.

Due to its three-axis stabilization it was able to point directly towards our planet and could observe most areas of the earth, using SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) to view land surfaces, polar ice and oceans, measuring ocean-surface temperature, sea winds and sea level changes via Radar Altimetry. On top of this it could also monitor ozone levels.

The data this satellite collected has been crucial in monitoring land surface changes, warming oceans, natural disasters, and importantly for the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling – monitoring diminishing polar ice and sea-level rise. ERS-2 (and it’s twin ERS-1 launched a few years prior) paved the way for other programmes including the EU Space program’s Copernicus Sentinels and ESA’s CryoSat Earth Explore Mission, both of which continue to provide vital data for CPOM’s research. In fact, we are using ERS-2 data to extend our datasets further back in time, in order to create a fuller view of the evolution of the cryosphere over the last 30 years.

It was retired in 2011 and has been de-orbiting since then. Now it’s 16-year journey home is complete, broken and burned up in the atmosphere with the remaining parts landing safely in the ocean yesterday but even though the physical entity is gone, the data it produced, having been used for thousands of scientific papers, continues to provide information for scientists at ESA, CPOM and beyond.

Image credit: ESA-SJM Photography