By Matthias Klaus
The CHEOPS mission blasted off from Kourou, French Guiana atop a Russian Soyuz rocket on Wednesday. The launch came 24 hours after a first attempt was delayed shortly before liftoff because of a software problem in the upper stage of the rocket.
Scientists have long theorized with near certainty that there are countless planets in the universe, given the sheer numbers of stars. But it has only been possible to truly prove this since the 1990s.
Since then, thousands of so-called exoplanets, i.e. planets outside our solar system, have been discovered. As of yet, we don't know what these planets consist of or whether they have atmospheres.
That's why the CHEOPS mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing to investigate some of the known exoplanets in more detail.
Measuring the Light Intensity of Stars
CHEOPS stands for "CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite," a satellite for the exploration of exoplanets. Despite the fact that exoplanets are incredibly far away from us (far outside our solar system, orbiting around distant stars), the mission is actually not that expensive.
"CHEOPS is a small mission in terms of scope, cost and also in terms of the time it takes to develop the mission," says Kate Isaak, a scientific coordinator of CHEOPS. "The mission is to measure the size of planets orbiting nearby suns."
And this is how it works: when a planet passes a star on its orbit, the star's light becomes darker for a short time. This is like a small solar eclipse that can be observed by CHEOPS.
And even if the same planet is placed behind the star from the point of the observer, it reflects the light of the star back. CHEOPS can still see that, too. Astronomers can compute the size of the planet from the attenuation of the light. And the light reflections emitted by the planet itself provide clues as to whether, for example, it has an atmosphere.
A Closer Look at Known Exoplanets
"By combining the size of the planets with their mass, something we can measure with telescopes on Earth, we learn a lot about the composition of the planets and their evolution," says Isaak.
All these differences are, of course, very small, since the stars and planets observed are several light years away. In order to be able to measure them at all, any disturbance must be excluded.
That's the reason why such observations are best made using space-based telescopes rather than those on Earth. The Earth's atmosphere would simply get in the way. CHEOPS is designed to target planets that are larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune.
Will CHEOPS Find Aliens?
The mission will take three and a half years. But, this time, the question of all questions will not be answered.
"The question of whether we are alone in the universe is certainly one of the most fundamental questions ever," says Isaak. But CHEOPS will not get that far. "Other satellites have shown that there are planets beyond our solar system. So it is clear that there are exoplanets. What we want to show now is what these smaller rock planets are like and how they evolve."
After all, it should be possible to identify at least some planets on which extraterrestrial life is at least conceivable.
"What we are looking for now are the best planetary candidates for future exploration by other satellites such as the James Webb Space Telescope or by observatories [such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO)] in South America. From there, we can study the atmospheres of these candidates and search for molecules characteristic of the presence of life."
Modular Research Satellite Design
In addition to the scientific findings that the CHEOPS mission will provide, the ESA looking for ways of making research satellites cheaper. The satellite developers have come up with new technologies for this purpose.
"Satellites are very expensive and very complex to build. And these programs always take a very long time," says Richard Southworth of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC). He is responsible for controlling the CHEOPS satellite.
"With CHEOPS, the idea was to see if we could do it better, a little faster and less costly. We have tried to keep the probe relatively simple and above all to use parts that have flown on other missions before. These components will then be less expensive and more reliable because they have already been tested."
ESA also saves on the transport of the probe into space: CHEOPS flies on a Soyuz rocket as cargo. So the project shares the travel costs with another — in this case an Italian — satellite.
And even if the satellite is already in the sky, there is still an opportunity to reduce costs. The CHEOPS researchers use the flying telescope only 80 percent of the time. The rest of the time others can rent it for their own research.
Scrapping Already Firmly Scheduled
The research itself will then begin after a test period of several months. But what happens to CHEOPS when the project is finished?
"It's planned to operate for three and a half years," says satellite controller Southworth. "But the design of the satellite should ensure that we could also fly for five years if there is money and interest. In the end, we deactivate the satellite and initiate de-orbiting."
The satellite will first be switched into a passive mode so that it can no longer interfere with radio signals or other satellites.
"Finally, we will also make an orbit correction. This will lead to the satellite's safe return to Earth. That means CHEOPS won't become space debris in the long run."
In the end, the probe will burn and disintegrate when entering the earth's atmosphere.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
In February 2018, a blowout at a fracked natural gas well in Belmont County, Ohio forced around 100 nearby residents to flee their homes, as The New York Times reported. Now, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday has revealed that the local incident had major implications for the global climate crisis.
Researchers used satellite data to determine that the blowout caused one of the largest methane leaks in U.S. history. It released more methane in around 20 days than the oil and gas industries of France, Norway and the Netherlands do in a year, Bloomberg News reported. The results raise questions about the ability of the oil and gas industry to control methane leaks.
"When I started working on methane, now about a decade ago, the standard line was: 'We've got it under control. We're managing it,'" study coauthor and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) scientist Dr. Steven Hamburg told The New York Times. "But in fact, they didn't have the data. They didn't have it under control, because they didn't understand what was actually happening. And you can't manage what you don't measure."
The research is one example of how satellites can help accurately measure the problem. The paper's Holland and U.S.-based authors used data from the spaceborne Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) to determine that the well leaked methane at a rate of about 120 metric tons per hour, double the rate of leakage from the largest ever methane leak in U.S. history, which took place in 2015 at a California oil and gas storage facility. The satellite measurements also estimated that the leak spewed 60 kilotons of methane in total into the atmosphere, Stuff.co.nz reported. That's five times the amount estimated by ExxonMobil, whose subsidiary XTO Energy owns the well.
"We deeply regret this incident occurred and are committed to identifying and managing risks associated with our activities to prevent recurrence," ExxonMobil spokeswoman Julie King told Stuff.co.nz in an email. "We are eager to learn more about their study. ExxonMobil is working with government laboratories, universities, NGOs and other industry participants to identify the most cost-effective and best-performing technology, including satellites, that can be adopted by all producers to detect, repair and accurately measure methane."
The study also raises questions about the climate safety of fracking and natural gas. While burning natural gas only emits half the greenhouse gases that burning coal does, methane is as much as 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks can therefore undermine the relative advantage of gas when it comes to lowering emissions.
The study's authors wrote that satellite measurements can help keep track of methane leaks that might otherwise be missed in calculating greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental groups are also increasingly embracing satellites as a tool. The EDF is even partnering with an aerospace company to build and launch a satellite dedicated to finding and monitoring methane leaks.
"We're entering a new era. With a single observation, a single overpass, we're able to see plumes of methane coming from large emission sources," satellite expert and study coauthor Ilse Aben told The New York Times. "That's something totally new that we were previously not able to do from space."
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Rhett Butler
Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE) resumed releasing deforestation data after nearly a month-long hiatus that followed the firing of the agency's director on Aug. 2.
The newly released data, which is based on short-term deforestation alerts, estimates that nearly 1,400 square kilometers of forest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon between Aug. 1 and Aug. 26, 2019. That rate is running well ahead of last August when 520 square kilometers were cleared during the whole month.
Accumulated INPE short-term deforestation alert data tallied for the Jan-Aug period on an annual basis since 2008. Note: official deforestation data is typically released in November or December and uses an Aug-Jul "year"
Year-to-date, INPE data puts forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon at 5,884 square kilometers through Aug. 26, more than 75 percent ahead of the area cleared through the end of August last year.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is normally tabulated on an Aug. 1 through July 31 "year" — the official estimate for the August 2018 – July 2019 year is expected to be released this November or December.
INPE reported an increase in burn scars in the Amazon, rising from 794 square kilometers last August to 1,259 square kilometers for the first 26 days of last month. Burn scars are not necessarily representative of recent deforestation however: most burn scars occur in agricultural lands, pasture, scrub, and degraded forest areas.
INPE also updated its fire data, counting more than 30,000 fire hotspots in Amazonia for the month of August 2019, nearly triple the 10,421 registered last August. INPE should be releasing its estimate of the area burned in August soon.
For the year, INPE has recorded 46,825 hotspots in Amazonia, more than twice the number of a year ago.
Fires in the Amazon sparked global attention last month when smoke blackened the skies over São Paulo, Brazil's largest city. Protests over the situation in the Amazon occurred widely in Brazil and at Brazilian embassies overseas, raising awareness over soaring deforestation and controversies surrounding Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's anti-environment policies and rhetoric.
While the current fires have garnered substantial attention and outrage, burning is a commonly used approach for clearing forests in the Amazon, especially for cattle ranching. Fires are typically set during the dry season, which normally runs from June to October.
This year's fires are the highest since 2010 — which was a severe drought year in the region — raising fears among scientists, conservationists, and environmentalists that Brazil's progress in reducing deforestation since the mid-2000s may be reversing.
Short-term and long-term deforestation trends in the Brazilian Amazon. Annual data is based on INPE's high resolution satellite analysis, while short-term data is based on INPE's deforestation monitoring system DETER. * 2019 annual data should be released in November or December 2019.
Freeze on Data Releases
This weekend's release of deforestation data is the first since early August when INPE director Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão was sacked after President Bolsonaro complained that INPE had exaggerated the recent increase in deforestation. Bolsonaro did not provide any evidence to support his claims and independent analysis by Brazilian NGO Imazon also showed a sharp increase in forest loss for the same period, further calling into question the president's statements.
The release comes after the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) gave the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Science and Technology a Sept. 2 deadline to provide evidence that INPE's deforestation is unreliable.
The MPF also opened an enquiry to investigate why Brazil's environmental law enforcement agency IBAMA is contracting a new satellite system for deforestation monitoring. INPE's deforestation monitoring system has been widely lauded abroad and serves as a model for other tropical countries.
Update 9/2/2019: August deforestation and fire scar data was updated on Sept. 2 after changes on the INPE web site, resulting in reductions in both figures. Accordingly the text was changed from "more than 1,400 square kilometers" to "nearly 1,400 square kilometers" and "49,200 square kilometers" to "1,259 square kilometers."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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The researchers assembled the most detailed look to date at the last 40 years of Himalayan ice loss to date, combining contemporary satellite information with data from declassified U.S. spy satellites. They found that average ice-loss per year had doubled between the periods 1975 to 2000 and 2000 to 2016, and that the glaciers had lost more than 25 percent of their ice in the study period, The Guardian reported.
"This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting since 1975, and why," research leader Joshua Maurer of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth observatory told The Guardian.
Himalaya glaciers melting rate has doubled. Researchers compared the average ice loss of the 1975-2000 interval wit… https://t.co/ZBXgMdcgpM— Michael Flammer 💚🌍🌡#KlimaVor8 (@Michael Flammer 💚🌍🌡#KlimaVor8)1561026498.0
Melting since 2000 has been especially dramatic, The New York Times reported. The glaciers lost a foot and a half of ice every year since then, and have lost a total of eight billion tons of water each year recently, the equivalent of 3.2 million Olympic size swimming pools. Most of this melting was caused by the climate crisis. While researchers said some ice lost was due to soot from the burning of fossil fuels, most was due to warmer temperatures, which rose by higher rates on average between 2000 and 2016 across the more than 1,200 mile range.
Study co-author Joerg Schaefer, as at Columbia, told CNN that unless we act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cool the planet, we would see a "pretty devastating scenario for Himalayan glaciers."
University of Leeds glaciology specialist Duncan Quincey, who was not involved in the research, explained why.
"In the short-term, such rapid melt rates will mean summer floods become more frequent as river discharge is increased, but the long-term prospect is one of drought as the glacier reservoir becomes depleted," he told CNN.
Around 800 million people across Asia now rely on Himalayan glaciers for energy, agriculture and drinking water. But this study is part of a growing body of evidence showing how much climate change threatens these glaciers, and the communities they support. A February study found that even if world leaders managed to limit global temperature increase to the Paris agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, one third of the ice in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region would still melt by 2100. If temperatures hit two degrees, half of the ice would melt, and if temperatures rose to four or five degrees Celsius, two thirds would disappear.
University College London climate science Prof. Chris Rapley, who was not involved in the study, said ice loss was "already undermining the viability of small communities in the Himalayas as they suffer ever more serious water shortages." If it continued, it would displace a significant number of people.
"Better for all of us to accelerate to net zero as a matter of the highest priority," he told CNN.
Researchers with the European Space Agency (ESA) have mapped in stunning detail the extensive retreat of South America's Patagonian ice fields, where some glaciers are melting at the highest rates on Earth and contribute to global sea level rise.
In a report this week, ESA revealed that between the years 2011 and 2017, Patagonia's ice fields receded at a rate of more than 21 gigatonnes (Gt)—21 billion metric tons—a year, the equivalent to adding 0.06 millimeters to global sea level.
During that six-year period, the team observed "widespread thinning of ice, particularly in the northern part of the Patagonian ice fields," said Luca Foresta, from the University of Edinburgh, in a statement.
"For example, the Jorge Montt glacier, which flows down to the ocean, retreated 2.5 kilometers and lost about 2.2 Gt of ice a year, and the Upsala glacier, which terminates at a lake, lost 2.68 Gt a year," Foresta said.
"In contrast, however, Pio XI, the largest glacier in South America, advanced and gained mass at a rate of about 0.67 Gt a year."
The scientists gathered this information using a novel technique called "swath processing" of data from ESA's CryoSat satellite, which monitors ice volume.
This new method, detailed in a paper published last month in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, allows whole swaths, rather than single points, of elevations to be computed, thus yielding more detail on the changing nature of glacial ice.
A new way of processing @esa #CryoSat swath data now makes it possible to map #Patagonia mountain #glaciers in fine… https://t.co/kCmhR48w2W— ESA EarthObservation (@ESA EarthObservation)1525355071.0
The study authors noted that Patagonian ice fields have thinned rapidly in recent years. Its ongoing melting has contributed about 15 percent to the total mass loss from glaciers and ice caps in the first decade of this century.
"This is because the weather is relatively warm and these glaciers typically terminate in fjords and lakes, exacerbating surface melting and causing them to flow faster and lose ice as icebergs at their margins," ESA explained in a report.
"There is a clear need to monitor and understand glacial dynamics, not only in Patagonia but globally," ESA said.
In an effort to understand how climate change is altering the carbon cycle, a project between the University of Oklahoma and NASA is headed to space. Orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth's surface, this host of instruments will track carbon as it flows through the Earth delivering real-time data and helping scientists quantify just how much humans are affecting the planet.
The carbon cycle is an inconspicuous, but vital, system in all ecosystems, including marine habitats, forests and even deserts. All plants need carbon to complete photosynthesis, and when they die, that carbon is either released back into the atmosphere, or buried deep under ground to create fossil fuels over thousands of years. As we are seeing today, the carbon cycle plays a huge role in temperature fluctuation and weather patterns and unfortunately, the more carbon we trap in the atmosphere, the more unpredictable these fluctuations become.
The University of Oklahoma is calling the mission the Earth Venture Mission, and the payload (the part that will attach to one of Earth's satellites) is called the Geostationary Carbon Observatory, or GeoCarb. Although it may seem like an extreme measure to take, scientists believe it is necessary. The increase of carbon in the atmosphere well surpassed the point of no return—or carbon threshold—in 2016 and has continued to steadily rise above 400 parts per million. This is rapid warming compared to the 280 ppm that persisted for thousands of years before the industrial revolution. Scientists say we've reached a state of unknown, and launching the GeoCarb is our best bet in being able to predict where we go from here.
From 1958 to 2017, carbon has been shy rocketing. Scripps Institution of Oceanography
The GeoCarb will rotate in tandem with Earth at 85 degrees west longitude where it will be able to record human activity in developed nations from urbanized areas to agricultural lands. It will take measurements of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide once or even twice daily. It will also measure solar induced fluorescence, which is the light that plants can't absorb and is therefore repelled from Earth. This measurement will be closely tied to the rate of photosynthesis, and will help map out where carbon sinks exist. The map will also help scientists understand where there is a natural release in carbon, such as when a plant dies and decays, versus when human-induced carbon is released. It will be the first time scientists are able to watch the Western Hemisphere breathe in and out every day.
"Knowing what fraction of these changes is caused by human activities is important for understanding our impact on the planet, and observing and measuring it is essential to any conversation about strategies for reducing CO2 emissions," Berrien Moore, director of the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma, told The Conversation.
"These observations, along with direct measurements of photosynthetic activity from SIF observations, will raise our understanding of the carbon cycle to a new level."