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Biomass: Examining the "Lungs" of our Planet from Space

Space & Airborne Systems
Oct 17, 2022 | 3 minute Read

“Save the rainforest” is not just a rally cry to protect the biodiversity of our planet’s forests. It’s also our best defense against climate change.

Earth’s forests are essentially the lungs of our planet, absorbing carbon dioxide – a major contributor to global warming – and replenishing life-giving oxygen. For millions of years, forests have helped maintain a delicate carbon balance throughout the planet. Until now.

As a result of wildfires and rapid deforestation, the Amazon is currently emitting more carbon than it can absorb. This reality, which is one that many of the world’s forests are currently facing, has devastating implications for us and our planet.

Analyzing which way our forests’ carbon cycles tip globally is critical to addressing climate change. Unfortunately, scientist can’t realistically catalog, map and measure the mass of every forest and tree from the ground. Despite moderate success capturing carbon dioxide levels from airplanes, scientists have never been able to get a holistic picture of the dynamic changes of Earth’s fluctuating carbon levels. To do that, they need a persistent vantage point.

Biomass: Examining the "Lungs" of our Planet from Space

Thankfully, the European Space Agency (ESA) has a solution – one based in space.

And they’re relying on L3Harris to provide the mission-enabling antenna that’s at the core of the agency’s advanced, space-based Earth observation solution.

The Largest Earth Observation Satellite 

ESA is working with Airbus and Space UK to build Biomass – a satellite dedicated to capturing actionable data on Earth’s carbon cycle from low Earth orbit (LEO).

The five-year mission will measure the biomass of the world’s forests using L3Harris’ unfurlable mesh reflector. The 12-meter folded-rib reflector will be the largest antenna deployed for Earth observation, doubling the size of the last Earth observation satellite – NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP). It is also the 100th unfurlable mesh reflector created by L3Harris. The reflector’s compact design allows it to fold neatly inside the mission launch vehicle. When fully unfurled it will provide a highly accurate and stable aperture for the duration of the mission.

Biomass is unique not only in purpose and scope, but also because it will be the first satellite to use P-band radar in space. L3Harris’ unfurlable mesh reflector is the key enabler of Biomass’ P-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

P band is unique in that it can pierce through clouds and the dense canopies of rainforests to build detailed maps of tree height and volume, capturing every single tree. With these maps, scientists can finally observe how forests are changing over time and how those changes impact Earth’s carbon cycle.

Once collected and processed, Biomass data will enable scientist to accurately measure the Earth’s carbon fluctuations along with the rate of habitat and biodiversity loss.

This information will provide timely evidence of continent- and country-specific emissions and deforestation to inform climate action policies and United Nation treaties.