ESA's Industrial Policy Committee has just given the 'go ahead' to procure a launch vehicle from Eurockot Launch Services GmbH of Bremen, Germany to launch the SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity) spacecraft.
Following the launch service agreements for CryoSat (due for launch in 2005) and GOCE (due for launch in 2006), SMOS will be the third spacecraft in ESA's Living Planet Programme - Earth Explorer series to be launched by Eurockot.
The SMOS spacecraft will be launched in early 2007 on a Rockot launch vehicle from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome about 800 km north of Moscow in Russia. Rockot is one of the modified Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) SS-19 launchers, which were decommissioned as a result of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991. The adaptation of the SS-19 uses the original two lower liquid propellant stages of the ICBM in conjunction with a new 'Breeze-KM' third stage for commercial payloads. The launch vehicle is 29 metres high and weighs about 107 tonnes. Rockot is marketed by Eurockot Launch Services, which is a joint venture between EADS Space Transportation and the Russian Khrunichev Space Centre.
The SMOS mission will, for the first time, provide high-resolution global maps of soil moisture and ocean salinity. Data on these two variables are urgently required to advance our knowledge of the Earth's water cycle and thus contribute to improving the forecasting of climate, weather and meteorological extremes. SMOS will also monitor the water content in vegetation, and provide observations over regions of ice and snow, contributing to the studies of the cryosphere.
An important aspect of this mission is that it will demonstrate a new approach to remote sensing by using a novel instrument called MIRAS (Microwave Imaging Radiometer using Aperture Synthesis). SMOS will carry the first-ever polar-orbiting space-borne 2-D interferometric radiometer that operates between 1400 and 1427 MHz (L-band).
The go ahead to buy the launch vehicle for SMOS marks a significant milestone in the development of the mission.