PARIS — European scientists on May 7 agreed to finance a satellite to measure the biomass and carbon stored in the world’s forests despite the fact that data collection over North America and Europe will be impossible because of conflicting frequency transmissions by U.S. military radars.

In unanimously agreeing to spend up to 420 million euros ($550 million) to build, launch and operate the Biomass satellite and its P-band radar, the European Space Agency (ESA) all but agreed to write off North America and Europe for Biomass use.

ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig said the decision was made with full recognition that the U.S. missile warning and space tracking radars, which have frequency priority over Biomass, may render the satellite unable to record data from these regions when it is launched in 2020.

“Our delegations have asked us to talk with the Americans to determine whether the situation might evolve in the coming years,” Liebig said in an interview. “But the fact is that North America and Europe have been relatively well-studied for biomass data, and so their loss will not be dramatic. We have not given up hope that the radar situation may change, because there are regions in southern Europe that are not as well covered as northern Europe.”

Biomass seeks to use a P-band-frequency synthetic aperture radar and a 12-meter-diameter deployable reflector to study many of the world’s forests to determine carbon levels. 

These frequencies, between 420 and 450 megahertz, are already in use. Radars installed in the United States, Greenland, Britain and Turkey by the United States and its allies as part of a ballistic missile warning and space surveillance network have been operating in this spectrum for decades.

It was only after long debate at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that frequency regulators agreed to let these promising Earth observation radars use a piece of the already-reserved spectrum. But the allocation was on a secondary basis, meaning the environmental satellites could not interfere with the military radars, sometimes referred to as the Space Object Tracking Radar network, and would need to stay out of their way.

Liebig said Biomass’ promise is so great that the project was able to overcome this handicap and win selection over two other missions.

But at a time when ESA’s Earth observation program is facing a much-lower-than-expected budget in the coming years as a result of decisions by the agency’s governments last November, ESA has not yet given a definitive green light to Biomass.

In an attempt to secure the best possible price for mission development, ESA will select two competing manufacturing teams this fall, following a June invitation to tender. The two consortia will be given 10-month contracts to refine the Biomass design and arrive at a credible cost-at-completion estimate. 

“Industry knows this will be a deciding factor” in the final vote to proceed to full development, Liebig said.

The two teams working on Biomass so far are led by Astrium Satellites of Britain and Thales Alenia Space Italy. But Italy was unable to maintain its previous level of financial support for ESA’s Earth observation program at the November ESA ministerial conference, raising doubts about whether an Italian company can be named Biomass prime contractor.

Liebig said the exact lineup of the two competing Biomass consortia will be determined in the coming months following the request for bids.

ESA’s 420 million-euro budget for Biomass, the agency’s seventh Earth Explorer mission, is considered a ceiling that may not hold. Liebig said efforts will be made to reduce costs, and that Earth observation program managers have reserved the right to stop the program at the end of the 10-month studies if indications are that the ceiling cannot be respected.

ESA is already cutting back on its program to meet budget constraints to the extent that the selection of an eighth Earth Explorer mission has been delayed.

Biomass also will need two technologies that are not currently available in Europe — its feeder antennas and its deployable radar antenna. ESA is investing research money into feeder antennas as part of its program to ensure autonomy in critical space technologies. Liebig said the program is advanced far enough so that by the time Biomass is assembled, Europe will be able to show it has reached Technology Readiness Level 5, meaning it is deemed fit for flight.

For the 12-meter-diameter radar antenna, ESA has agreed to purchase proven U.S. hardware, likely from Northrop Grumman or Harris Corp.


U.S. Missile Warning Radars Could Squelch ESA’s Proposed Biomass Mission

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.