ESA selects FLEX plant health tracker as eighth Earth Explorer
The European Space Agency (ESA)has officially selected the Fluorescence Explorer – or FLEX – asthe eighth Earth Explorer satellite. The mission will studyvegetation around the planet, gathering information aboutplanet health at a time when a growing population is puttingincreased strain on food production.
We previously covered the FLEX mission back in February, at which stage it was competing with another EarthExplorer proposal known as CarbonSat, which aimed to monitor carbondioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere. Fast forward ninemonths and FLEX has now been officially confirmed as ESA's next EarthExplorer satellite, scheduled to lift off by 2022.
The mission is focused on trackingglobal vegetation health, measuring the glow given off by planets asthey work to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy. It willlook to improve our understanding of how carbon interacts withvegetation and the atmosphere, and how the process of photosynthesisimpacts the water and carbon cycles.
There's currently no apparatus in orbitcapable of studying photosynthesis on a global scale, but the newsensor on board the FLEX satellite will change this. Testing for the mission was completed earlier this year, using an aircraft-mountedimaging spectrometer to measure the florescence of two turf fields,one of which was treated with herbicide, lessening its ability tocollect solar energy. The instrument performed as hoped, detecting astronger glow from the treated field.
The satellite won't be operating aloneonce it hits low Earth orbit in 2022, but will work together with oneof the Copernicus Sentinel-3 probes, making use of its thermal andoptical sensors to enhance the data recorded by FLEX.
FLEX is just the latest addition to theEarth Explorer program. Previous satellites have significantlyfurthered our understanding of the planet, providing valuableinformation about soil moisture, the Earth's magnetic field, andmore. 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 hopedthat the information gathered by the eighth Earth Explorer will beevery bit as valuable.
"FLEX will give us new information onthe actual productivity of vegetation that can be used to supportagricultural management and the development of a sustainablebioeconomy," says ESA's Director General Jan Woerner. "It willtherefore help to understand our ecosystem."