ESA's CryoSat ready for launch
At 17:02 CEST today, ESA will launch their latest satellite, CryoSat. This orbiter is designed to measure variations in the thickness of the polar ice sheets over the 1000-day mission. The aim is to determine exactly what impact global warming is having on the polar regions of the Earth. Due for launch from Plesetsk in Northern Russia, the satellite will go into a highly inclined orbit in order to maximise its coverage of the poles. The main science instrument is the Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL), a sensor which will measure the extent of the ice sheets. As the coverage on the ESA website says, sensors similar to this have been used before to measure heights of land and water, but this is the first time it has been done with ice.
CryoSat is unusual in that it has virtually no moving parts. This means less risk of failure, but posed interesting technical challenges for the engineers who designed it. Instead of deployable solar panels, CryoSat has rigid panels fixed the the body of the satellite. It also has two antennas, one for command uplinks and telemetry downlinks which works at a wavelength of around 13 cm (S band), and one which is used to transmit the huge volumes of data to the groundstation at Kiruna which operates at around 4 cm (X band).
ESA have an online countdown where you can check the status of the mission during the launch and early orbit phase. Groovy.