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World's most sophisticated thermal imagers fly over UK for the first time


World's most sophisticated thermal imagers fly over UK for the first time

One of the world's most sophisticated thermal imagers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory will soon be flying over the UK for the first time.

The pioneering airborne science campaign – led by King's College London and coordinated with UK Research and Innovation’s National Environment Research Council's (NERC) National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) – will measure the temperature of the land from the air and help assess the state of Europe’s agricultural areas and urban regions.

The campaign aims to inform designs for the next generation of thermal imaging satellites which collect vital data helping to address global challenges, such as food security and water use under a changing climate. 

The project brings together highly sophisticated airborne imaging instruments from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NERC-NCEO, and will fly them together in the British Antarctic Survey's Twin Otter aircraft to collect data over London, and various agricultural areas in the UK and Europe.

Whilst aiming to conduct new science, the Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (HyTES) will also collect data crucial for planning a future European remote sensing satellite, the Land Surface Temperature Monitoring (LSTM) mission, currently being considered for inclusion in Copernicus, the European Union's Earth Observation Programme.

Martin Wooster, Professor of Earth Observation Science at King’s College London, is leading the research and campaign team for the project, which is entitled NET-SENSE. He said: “The Space Agencies NASA and ESA have provided a phenomenal opportunity to operate JPL’s HyTES thermal imaging instrument over the UK and Europe for the first time ever. Flying HyTES alongside our UK instrumentation offers a unique data collection capability that will provide both new science and information that can really have a strong influence on the design of the proposed new LSTM satellite.

“Examining our planet and its environment for the ultimate benefit of people is so important with the ever-pressing global challenges we face, and remote sensing from satellites is a key way to provide a consistent, global view that we can use to track and respond to both short and long-term change.”

The research project has already seen the HyTES instrument travel to the UK from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena (California) and be fitted to the British Antarctic Survey's Twin Otter aircraft ready for the first flights across the UK and parts of Europe to commence in mid-June.

From their airborne vantage point, these sensors can collect data in hundreds of different wavelengths of light, including those far outside the range of the human eye. This data allows extremely detailed airborne mapping of surface features, including their chemical and physical make-up and their temperature to be recorded. Detailed ground-based measurements will be taken at select locations under the aircraft’s flight path, which will ensure the quality and accuracy of the data collected.

Engineers and scientists working on the new LSTM mission will be enabled to map the temperature of the land surface using these ‘remote sensing’ methods, and use these results in applications such as mapping of urban heat and calculating the rate at which plants are using water.

This pioneering scientific and engineering endeavor will inform the new LSTM satellite mission design enabling improvements to technical specification including which wavelengths to measure in, the time of day the satellite should overpass, and the spatial detail the measurements should be made at, from a satellite orbiting hundreds kilometers above the Earth.

The research team hope that over the next two years, similar flights will be carried out across other parts of the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy, with the LSTM satellite being designed and built over the next decade.

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