ESA selects FLEX plant health tracker as eighth Earth Explorer

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The mission, which is set to track global vegetation health, is set for a 2022 launch(Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has officially selected the Fluorescence Explorer – or FLEX – as the eighth Earth Explorer satellite. The mission will study vegetation around the planet, gathering information about planet health at a time when a growing population is putting increased strain on food production.

We previously covered the FLEX mission back in February, at which stage it was competing with another Earth Explorer proposal known as CarbonSat, which aimed to monitor carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere. Fast forward nine months and FLEX has now been officially confirmed as ESA's next Earth Explorer satellite, scheduled to lift off by 2022.

The mission is focused on tracking global vegetation health, measuring the glow given off by planets as they work to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy. It will look to improve our understanding of how carbon interacts with vegetation and the atmosphere, and how the process of photosynthesis impacts the water and carbon cycles.

There's currently no apparatus in orbit capable of studying photosynthesis on a global scale, but the new sensor on board the FLEX satellite will change this. Testing for the mission was completed earlier this year, using an aircraft-mounted imaging spectrometer to measure the florescence of two turf fields, one of which was treated with herbicide, lessening its ability to collect solar energy. The instrument performed as hoped, detecting a stronger glow from the treated field.

The satellite won't be operating alone once it hits low Earth orbit in 2022, but will work together with one of the Copernicus Sentinel-3 probes, making use of its thermal and optical sensors to enhance the data recorded by FLEX.

FLEX is just the latest addition to the Earth Explorer program. Previous satellites have significantly furthered our understanding of the planet, providing valuable information about soil moisture, the Earth's magnetic field, and more. Meanwhile, the first Earth Explorer – the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) – completed in 2013, successfully mapped the variations in Earth's gravity. It's hoped that the information gathered by the eighth Earth Explorer will be every bit as valuable.

"FLEX will give us new information on the actual productivity of vegetation that can be used to support agricultural management and the development of a sustainable bioeconomy," says ESA's Director General Jan Woerner. "It will therefore help to understand our ecosystem."

Source: ESA

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