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Researchers of the ITC department of the University of Twente have had an important role in the preliminary research for FLEX, a new satellite of the European space organisation ESA. Last week, the Fluorescence Explorer (FLEX) satellite was selected by the ESA member states for the realisation of the eighth mission in the Earth Explorer series.
The ITC Water Resources department was represented in the consortium that works on the realisation of the FLEX satellite by Christiaan van der Tol, PhD, and Prof. Wout Verhoef, PhD. The ITC researchers developed a computer model that was used to investigate the possible application areas of FLEX and to simulate what the satellite measurements made by the new satellite would look like.
“FLEX is the first Earth Explorer mission that will perform its mission in tandem with another satellite, the Sentinel-3. This is necessary because this satellite will provide additional data on the atmosphere and the surface temperature. The first satellite in the Sentinel-3 series will soon be launched”, Wout Verhoef explains.
FLEX will provide unique satellite images for research into the functioning of vegetation and phytoplankton. The satellite is expected to be launched into orbit in 2022. The images will allow researchers to gain better insight into the worldwide effects of land-use, weather, and stress factors on plants on land and algae in the oceans. The productivity of agricultural areas will also be measured.
FLEX is the first satellite that is specially designed for measuring fluorescence. Fluorescence is a weak glow emitted by plants and algae as a by-product of photosynthesis. It is an indication of the plant's productivity. FLEX is able to measure this very weak signal from space. Van der Tol: “‘It is like measuring the breathing of the planet! We can see how much sunlight is stored by the plants, thereby creating the fuel for almost all other life on Earth.”
Earth Explorer series
In the framework of the Earth Explorers programme, ESA - in which 22 European countries cooperate - have had a series of satellites developed that will contribute to a better understanding of natural phenomena on Earth. A number of satellites are already in orbit to research, for example, the salt content of oceans and the Earth's magnetic field. Currently, ESA is also developing missions to collect data on, for example, wind, clouds and forestation.