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European research satellite SMOS in orbit

The European research satellite SMOS, which will measure the Earth's soil moisture and ocean salinity, was launched by a Rockot vehicle from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in Russia on 2 November.

November 2nd 2009 - The SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity mission) satellite was launched this morning by a Rockot launcher from the Plesetsk cosmodrome. The satellite is a Franco-Spanish project, which involves the Centre of National Space Studies, CNES in France, the Centre for the Technological and Industrial Development, CDTI in Spain and the European Space Agency, ESA, as part of its “Living Planet” Earth observation programme. Its mission is to measure the soil moisture and the ocean salinity on a global scale using its radiometric instrument MIRAS (Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis), built by Astrium in Spain. Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for this programme.


© Eurockot 

  • SMOS carries the most complex space instrument ever made in Spain for ESA
  • Astrium in Spain, has led the construction of this innovative instrument which will observe the Earth’s water cycle

The MIRAS instrument represents a significant technological challenge as it uses innovative measurement techniques never before deployed in space. Until now it had not been possible to measure soil moisture and ocean salinity from space, even though the concept was first suggested 40 years ago. SMOS has been described by ESA as a “technological revolution” and “historic milestone” in Earth observation, as in order to carry out this mission with classic radiometry, an antenna ten metres wide would be needed, which is impossible to fit in any launcher.

MIRAS has three "arms" in a ‘Y’ configuration, as well as a central support structure. With the arms deployed, it has a span of 8 metres in diameter and a mass of 360 kilograms. It also carries 69 small antenna receptors situated along the three arms and the central structure. With these receptors, SMOS possesses a field of view of 1,000 kilometres and will capture up to 80 different measurements. In total, it will orbit the planet 15 times a day and will supply a complete map of all the Earth’s surface every three days with a resolution of 50 kilometres per pixel, at a depth of one centimetre. The bus of the instrument is the Proteus platform, supplied by Thales Alenia Space in France. The satellite will have a service life of three years with a possibility to extend its mission for an additional two years.

These two parameters, soil moisture and ocean salinity, are of key scientific interest in creating a better understanding of the Earth’s water cycle and ultimately climate change. For example, salinity has a direct influence on the circulation of ocean currents, which provoke phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña, causing flooding and droughts. The evaporation and infiltration of the water in land masses depends on the degree of moisture in the soil and the vegetation water content, key aspects to understanding the hydrological cycle and the monitoring of the fresh water reserves of the planet. Therefore, the benefits derived from this type of mission are numerous with a better understanding of the water cycle allowing for advances to be made in meteorology, climatology, oceanography, risk management, agriculture hydrology, marine resources and urban development.

The SMOS programme has also contributed towards a more competitive space industry in Spain, increasing the country’s capability in leading space programmes. SMOS has been a catalyst for Spain’s technological capacity, since it is the first time, through Astrium, that the country has lead the development of an instrument on behalf of ESA.

For Spain, the SMOS programme has been of huge strategic importance because it has opened the door to leading new programmes, such as a second radiometer being developed for ESA’s Sentinel-3 satellite. Today, due to the company’s work on the SMOS programme, Astrium is also leading the two Spanish Earth observation satellites: PAZ and INGENIO. Finally, and depending on the results obtained through the SMOS data, an operational SMOS might be developed for Eumetsat in the near future.

Astrium Spain signed the €61 million SMOS contract to become the prime contractor of the payload in June 2004. SMOS, after GOCE is the second Earth Explorer mission in space. Next to come is Cryosat-2, also led by Astrium.

 Astrium Spain is a holding formed by the two Spanish space companies of Astrium: EADS CASA Espacio and Astrium CRISA.

Astrium, a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS, is dedicated to providing civil and defence space systems and services. In 2008, Astrium had a turnover of €4.3 billion and more than 15,000 employees in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. Its three main areas of activity are Astrium Space Transportation for launchers and orbital infrastructure, Astrium Satellites for spacecraft and ground segment and Astrium Services for the development and delivery of satellite services.

EADS is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2008, EADS generated revenues of €43.3 billion and employed a workforce of more than 118,000.

Press contacts:

 Daniel Mosely (Astrium UK)                                                      Tel.: +44 (0)1 438 77 8180

Matthieu Duvelleroy (Astrium FR)                                              Tel.: +33 (0) 1 77 75 80 32

Ralph Heinrich (Astrium GER)                                                   Tel.: +49 (0) 89 607 33971

Francisco Lechón (Astrium SP)                                                 Tel.: +34 91 586 37 41



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