Minimize Biomass

Biomass (Biomass monitoring mission for Carbon Assessment)

Spacecraft   Development Status   Launch   Sensor Complement   References

In May 2013, ESA's Earth Observation Program Board selected the Biomass mission as its 7th Earth Explorer mission following the review of three candidate concepts. Earth Explorers are research missions dedicated to specific aspects of our Earth environment whilst demonstrating new technology in space. Earth Explorer missions focus on the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and the Earth's interior with the overall emphasis on learning more about the interactions between these components and the impact that human activity is having on natural Earth processes. The Biomass mission concept is set to become the next in a series of satellites developed to further our understanding of Earth. The mission aims to take measurements of forest biomass to assess terrestrial carbon stocks and fluxes for a better understanding of the carbon cycle. 1) 2) 3) 4)

Background: The primary environmental science challenge in the early 21st century is to improve our understanding of how global changes are affecting the Earth System, and the feedbacks within this system, in order that human societies can assess their likely impacts and adopt ways to mitigate and adapt to them. Deeply embedded in the functioning of the Earth system is the carbon cycle, which consists of intermeshed processes by which carbon is exchanged between the atmosphere, land and ocean (Figure 1). Quantifying this global-scale cycle is fundamental to understanding many of the dramatic changes taking place on Earth because of its close connection with both fossil fuel combustion and land use change. These are the two most significant drivers of global change, leading to increases in atmospheric CO2 and the associated global warming (IPCC, 2007). 5)

Terrestrial processes play a crucial role in the carbon cycle through the carbon uptake and respiration associated with plant growth, emissions due to the disturbance of natural processes (e.g. wildfires) and anthropogenic land use change. There is strong evidence that over the last 50 years the terrestrial biosphere has acted as a net carbon sink, removing from the atmosphere approximately one-third of the CO2 emitted in the process of fossil fuel combustion (Canadell et al., 2007).6) However, the status, dynamics and evolution of the terrestrial biosphere are the least well understood and most uncertain elements of the carbon cycle.

Consequently, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has identified biomass as an Essential Climate Variable that is needed to reduce uncertainties in our knowledge of the climate system (GCOS, 2004). 7) While global observation programs for most terrestrial ECVs (Essential Climate Variables) are advanced or evolving, there is currently no such effort for biomass (Houghton et al., 2009). 8) In addition, the sequestration of carbon in forest biomass is the only mechanism for mitigating climate change recognized under the Kyoto Protocol, other than reduced emissions.

Scientific Objectives: The Biomass mission will address a fundamental gap in our understanding of the land component of the Earth system, which is the status and the dynamics of Earth’s forests, as represented by the distribution of forest biomass and its changes. With accurate, frequent and global information on these forest properties at a spatial scale of 200 m, it will be possible to address a range of critical issues with far-reaching scientific and societal consequences. In particular, the Biomass mission will help to:

- reduce the large uncertainties in the carbon flux due to changes in land use

- provide scientific support for international treaties, agreements and programs such as the UN’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) program

- improve understanding and predictions of landscape-scale carbon dynamics

- provide observations to initialize and test the land element of Earth system models

- provide key information for forest resources management and ecosystem services.

The Biomass mission will explore Earth’s surface for the first time at the P-band wavelength, making observations that could have a wide range of as yet unforeseen applications, such as for mapping subsurface geological features in deserts in support of palaeohydrological studies and in ice sheets, and the surface topography of areas covered by dense vegetation.


Figure 1: The global carbon cycle for 2000–09 showing estimates of the net amount of carbon (Gt) that cycles between the atmosphere, ocean and land every year (green boxes), and the amounts of carbon stored in the atmosphere and in the land (data from the Global Carbon Project). The amount of carbon stored in forest biomass is the least understood component of this cycle (image credit: ESA/EOGB)

Biomass addresses one of the most fundamental questions in our understanding of the land component in the Earth system, namely the status and the dynamics of forests, as represented by the distribution of biomass and how it is changing. Gaining accurate and frequent information on forest properties at scales that allow changes to be observed will mean that the scientific community is equipped to address a range of critical issues with far-reaching benefits for science and society. Moreover, Biomass will greatly improve our knowledge of the size and distribution of the terrestrial carbon pool. And provide much-improved estimates of terrestrial carbon fluxes. In addition, the mission responds to the pressing need for biomass observations in support of global treaties such as the UN REDD+(Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) initiative – an international effort to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and land degradation in developing countries. These mission objectives respond directly to the specific scientific challenges in ESA's Living Planet Program (Ref. 19). 9) 10) 11) 12) 13) 14) 15)

In addition, the measurements made by Biomass offer the opportunity to map the elevation of Earth’s terrain under dense vegetation, yielding information on subsurface geology and allowing the estimation of glacier and ice-sheet velocities, critical to our understanding of ice-sheet mass loss in a warming Earth.

Biomass also has the potential to evolve into an operational system, providing long-term monitoring of forests – one of Earth’s most important natural resources.

Before the launch of the BIOMASS P-band SAR satellite, foreseen in 2021, only spaceborne L-band data from ALOS PALSAR until 2011 and ALOS-2 (launch on May 24, 2014) are available for biomass studies. 16)

• March 2005: In response to ESA's Second Call for Earth Explorer Opportunity Missions, a P-band SAR payload was proposed to provide the spatial distribution and dynamics of forest biomass. 17)

- Climate change and its consequences constitute the most important environmental problem of the 21st century. The most critical element in understanding climate change is the quantification of the carbon cycle, of which a crucial component is the terrestrial biosphere.

- However, the status, dynamics and evolution of the terrestrial biosphere are the least understood and the most uncertain elements in the carbon cycle, at all scales. Information on vegetation biomass is urgently needed to assess the present terrestrial carbon distribution. It is also essential, in combination with ecological models and other data sources, in order to identify carbon sources and sinks and their variation over time; to predict how these may change in the future; and to develop indicators of the status of the global climate system.

• In 2009, the three candidate Earth Explorer Core missions, namely BIOMASS, CoReH2O (Cold Regions Hydrology high-resolution Observatory) and PREMIER (Process Exploration through Measurement of infrared and millimeter-wave Emitted Radiation) were selected for feasibility study and their resulting Reports for Mission Selection were published in June 2012. 19) 20)

• March 2, 2013: BIOMASS was among the three missions down selected for phase A studies.

- Following the User Consultation Meeting held in Graz, Austria on 5-6 March 2013, the Earth Science Advisory Committee (ESAC) has recommended implementing Biomass as the 7th Earth Explorer Mission within the frame of the ESA Earth Observation Envelope Program.

• On May 7, 2013, ESA's Earth Observation Program Board selected ‘Biomass’ to become the seventh Earth Explorer mission. The innovative satellite aims to map and monitor one of Earth’s most precious resources. The satellite will be designed to provide, for the first time from space, P-band radar measurements that are optimized to determine the amount of biomass and carbon stored in the world’s forests with greater accuracy than ever before (Ref. 1).

• On Feb. 18, 2015, the ESA Member States gave the green light for the Biomass mission full implementation with a planned launch in 2020. 21)

On April 29, 2016, ESA and Airbus Defence and Space UK signed a €229 million contract to build the next Earth Explorer: the Biomass satellite, due to begin its mission in 2021. 22)

Table 1: Some stations in ESA's Earth Explorer Opportunity Mission selection process 17) 18) 19) 20) 21) 22)


Figure 2: Overview of the Biomass architecture (image credit: ESA, Ref. 2)

The primary scientific objectives of the Biomass mission are to determine the distribution of above-ground biomass in the world forests and to measure annual changes in this stock over the period of the mission to greatly enhance our understanding of the land carbon cycle. To achieve these objectives, the Biomass sensor will consist of a P-band (435 MHz) Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) in side-looking geometry with full polarimetric and interferometric capabilities. The main architectural elements of the Biomass mission are shown in Figure 2. 23) 24) 25) 26) 27) 28) 29)

Biomass will provide global maps of forest biomass stocks at a spatial resolution in the order of 4 ha, once a year over the life of the five-year mission. These maps will greatly improve on existing forest inventories and give vastly improved information for managing Earth’s forest resources.

Biomass will also provide maps of biomass change, which can be linked to disturbance, degradation, land-use change, forest growth. In addition, the full resolution of the instrument of around 0.25 ha will be used to detect deforestation; linking this to the coarser resolution maps of biomass will allow associated carbon losses to be estimated at scales commensurate with the processes of land-use change. The Biomass observation requirements have been derived from these high level objectives (Table 2).



Instrument type

P-band full polarimetric interferometric SAR

Center frequency

435 MHz (P-band, 70 cm wavelength)


6 MHz (ITU allocation)

Near incidence angle

>23º (threshold); 25º (goal)

Cross-polarization ratio (cross-talk)

≤-25 dB (threshold); ≤-30 dB (goal)

Channel imbalance

≤-34 dB

Residual phase error


Spatial resolution (≥6 looks)

≤ 60 m (across-track) x 50 m (along-track)


≤-16 dB


≤-9 dB

Noise equivalent σ0

≤ –27 dB (threshold); ≤ –30 dB (goal)

Total ambiguity ratio

≤ -18 dB

Radiometric stability

≤ 0.5 dB (1σ)

Radiometric bias

≤ 0.3 dB (1σ)

Dynamic range

35 dB

Table 2: Biomass mission observation requirements

Observation principle:

Biomass will be based on a P-band polarimetric SAR mission with controlled inter-orbit distances (baselines) between successive revisits to the same site. At each acquisition, the radar will measure the scattering matrix, from which the backscattering coefficients (equivalent to radar intensity) will be derived in each of the different linear polarization combinations, i.e. HH, VV, HV & VH (where H and V stand for horizontal and vertical transmitted and received), and the inter-channel complex correlation. For interferometric image pairs, the system will provide the complex interferometric correlation (coherence) between the images at each linear polarization. PolInSAR (Polarimetric interferometric SAR) coherence and PolSAR (Polarimetric SAR) backscatter observations provide independent, complementary information that can be combined to give robust, consistent and accurate retrieval of biomass. In addition tomography techniques, using a multi-baseline polarimetric SAR acquisition, will be used to complete the knowledge of the vertical structure of the forest (Figure 3). By exploiting these capabilities, Biomass will build up a unique archive of information about the world’s forests and their dynamics (Ref. 25).


Figure 3: Biomass observation principle based on three complementary techniques (image credit: ESA)

Measurement techniques. The three measurement techniques exploited by BIOMASS and illustrated in Figure 3 yield complementary information on forest properties: 30)

1) Horizontal mapping: In polarimetric mode, after calibration and correction for ionospheric effects, each BIOMASS pixel measures the scattering matrix, from which the backscattering intensity will be derived in each of the linear polarization combinations, i.e. HH, VV, HV & VH, where H and V stand for horizontal and vertical transmitted and received signals. For a forest canopy, the P-band radar waves penetrate deep into the canopy, and their interaction with the structure of the forest (through volume scattering, surface scattering or double bounce scattering mechanisms) differs between polarizations. P-band SAR is particularly sensitive to large forest constituents, such as the trunk and large branches, where most of the biomass resides, and polarizations can be chosen to minimize the contribution from the ground and effects arising from topographic and soil moisture variation. Hence P-band polarimetric measurements can be used to map AGB (Above Ground Biomass), as demonstrated from airborne data for temperate & boreal forests and tropical forest.

2) Height mapping: Using repeat revisits to the same location with controlled inter-track distances, the BIOMASS SAR system will measure the polarimetric complex interferometric correlation between image pairs, from which it is possible to estimate the height of scattering in the forest canopy as a function of polarization (PolInSAR).This allows canopy height to be derived, assuming a model for the vertical structure of scatterers in the forest. Numerous airborne experiments over temperate, boreal and tropical test sites have shown that forest height can be mapped with accuracy comparable to that of airborne lidar. A crucial factor here is that at the long wavelength used by BIOMASS, temporal coherence is preserved over much longer timescales than, for example, at L-band. This is because BIOMASS is sensitive to larger structures in the canopy, which more are more stable; in addition, the longer wavelength makes the phase less sensitive to small motions of the dominant scatterers. BIOMASS will be first spaceborne radar sensor providing large scale height maps using PolInSAR, although application of the technique from space has been demonstrated using Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR-C) L-band data.

3) 3-D mapping: The P-band frequency used by BIOMASS is low enough to ensure penetration through the entire canopy, even in dense tropical forests. As a consequence, resolution of the vertical structure of the forest will be possible using tomographic methods from the multi-baseline acquisitions to be made by BIOMASS. This is the concept of SAR tomography, which has been implemented with airborne systems and will be available for the first time using space with the BIOMASS mission. When the vertical resolution is less than half the forest height, it is possible to split the vertical distribution of the backscatter intensity into a number of layers, without assuming any prior knowledge about the forest vertical structure. As expected, the bottom layer contains mainly ground scattering and the backscatter from this layer is very weakly correlated with AGB. However, in two different tropical forest sites in French Guiana, the backscatter from a layer at about 30 m above the ground was found to be strongly correlated with AGB, up to biomass densities of 450-500 t/ha, allowing the production of wide area biomass maps. Findings from airborne data are expected to carry across to BIOMASS, despite the coarser spatial and vertical resolution available in BIOMASS tomography.

Mission concepts:

The technical description of the Biomass mission is derived from the preparatory activities and shows how candidate implementation concepts can respond to the scientific requirements. The system description is mainly based on the results of the work performed during two parallel Phase A system studies by two industrial consortia, led by Astrium DS Ltd. and Thales Alenia Space, Italy. Consequently, two implementation concepts, marked A and B, are described in what follows.

The space segment comprises a single spacecraft carrying a P-band SAR, operating in stripmap mode in a near-polar, sun-synchronous quasi-circular frozen orbit at an altitude of 634–666 km, depending on the different mission phases. The baseline Vega launcher will inject the satellite into its target orbit. The orbit is designed to enable repeat-pass interferometric acquisitions throughout the mission’s life. The baseline is different for the interferometric (in the order of 2 km at equator) and the tomographic phases (below 1 km at equator).

Acquisitions are made at dawn/dusk, i.e. 06:00/18:00 local time (at the equator), to minimize the adverse influence of the ionosphere on the radar signal. The Biomass mission will last five years and will comprise a tomographic phase with a duration of 1 year followed by the interferometric phase.

The strategy for meeting the baseline requirement is based on the selection of an orbit with a ‘controlled drift’, flying the satellite in an orbit where the altitude is slightly higher or lower than that of the exact repeating orbit. The coverage build-up for the observation concept is shown in Figure 2 and combined roll of the satellite to acquire 3 consecutive interferometric images, with controlled drift of the orbit.


Figure 4: Coverage strategy (image credit: ESA)


The Biomass space segment comprises a single LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite platform carrying the SAR instrument. The SAR antenna is based on a large deployable reflector (12 m circular projected aperture) with an offset feed array and a single-beam. The satellite configuration is strongly constrained by the accommodation of the very large reflector antenna inside the Vega launcher. This large antenna must be folded for launch and deployed in orbit to form a stable aperture throughout the mission’s life.

The overall configuration of Concept A is shown in Figure 3 and is compatible with COTS (Commercial-Off-The-Shelf) reflectors from the US manufacturers Harris Corporation (HC) and Northrop Grumman (NG). For Concept A, the reflector is illuminated by a 3 x 2 array of cavity-backed circular microstrip radiators, which is mounted onto to the –Y wall of the satellite at the lower end (not visible in the figures).


Figure 5: Artist's rendition of the BIOMASS satellite configurations (image credit: Airbus DS)

Harris Corporation has been selected by Airbus Defence and Space UK, the builder of the Biomass satellite, to provide a 12-meter deployable reflector and precision boom assembly for this carbon-monitoring craft (Figure 5). 31) The Harris deployable reflector is a major component of the SAR antenna and enables the Biomass satellite to obtain a high level of map accuracy not attainable by ground measurement techniques alone. With more than 80 reflectors in orbit, Harris is the leading supplier of large reflector apertures and deployable mesh reflector-feed antenna systems.

Development status

• September 22, 2021: Forests, especially tropical rainforests, are guardians against climate change. But our forests are burning. They are withering and dwindling. Our guardians are themselves threatened by climate change. A new European Space Agency (ESA) satellite mission, currently being built by Airbus, is set to investigate exactly how our forests are faring. The name says it all: Biomass. 32)

- Our forests and global climate are closely linked. Forests are huge carbon stores. They cover around one third of the world’s surface, but they store about half of the carbon bound on Earth. With their needles and leaves, they filter the carbon dioxide in the air that is so harmful to the environment and split it into oxygen and carbon. They release vital oxygen back into the air and retain the carbon.

- Forests also influence evaporation, water cycles and thus the weather. Interconnected forest areas function like huge air-conditioning systems. Tropical forests also have a cooling effect on the climate. However, if temperatures rise worldwide, tropical forests may dry out and die. If the forests die, the carbon stored in them is released and their important climate-regulating and cooling function is lost.

- Carbon is stored in many different types of forests, such as boreal forests, tropical rainforests, mangroves, urban forests and plantations. These forests differ in their ability to store carbon and produce biomass. But experts estimate that up to 75 % of the world's biomass is found in forests. And the forests are shrinking. On an unimaginable scale: since 2010, 11 million hectares per year, or the equivalent of roughly 30 football fields per minute!

- ESA's Biomass environment and climate mission will therefore monitor tropical rainforests. Its main scientific objectives include determining the distribution of above-ground biomass in the rainforests and measuring the annual changes in this mass.

- Biomass and vegetation height are recorded at a resolution of 200 m, intrusions in the forest system, such as clear-cutting, at a resolution of 50 m. The spacecraft will carry the first spaceborne P-band radar to deliver exceptionally accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass that cannot be obtained on the ground. Biomass will achieve this using a ‘synthetic aperture radar’ to send down signals from orbit and record the resulting backscatter, building up maps of tree height and volume. To see through leafy treetops to the trees themselves, Biomass will employ long-wavelength ‘P-band’ radar, which has never previously flown in space. It will have its signals amplified to travel down from a 600-km altitude orbit down to Earth and back.

- The mission will collect frequent information on global forests to determine the distribution of their above-ground biomass and measure annual changes. This unique satellite will provide a full global map of forest biomass stocks at a spatial resolution in the order of 4 ha, once every year over the life of the five-year mission, providing an entirely new dataset for climatologists to work with.

- These maps will greatly improve on existing forest inventories and give vastly improved information for managing Earth’s forest resources. The data collected by Biomass will also capture subsurface geological structures in desert areas and the topography of surfaces hidden under dense vegetation. Observations from this new mission will also lead to better insight into rates of habitat loss and, therefore, the effect this may have on biodiversity in the forest environment.

- Ernest Hemingway, the famous American author, said: “Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.” So let’s get Biomass into orbit to monitor it, learn about it and – fight for it.

• April 28, 2021: With challenges imposed by the COVID pandemic, engineers building and testing ESA’s Biomass satellite have had to come up with some clever working methods to keep on track while adhering to safety rules. The result is that the satellite structure is not only complete, but has also undergone a series of demanding tests to ensure it will withstand the rigors of liftoff – all bringing the launch of this extraordinary forest carbon mapping mission one step closer. 33)


Figure 6: Biomass satellite structure being tested. Carrying a novel P-band synthetic aperture radar, the Biomass mission is designed to deliver crucial information about the state of our forests and how they are changing, and to further our knowledge of the role forests play in the carbon cycle (image credit: Airbus, D. Marques)

- Forests play a crucial role in Earth’s carbon cycle by absorbing and storing large amounts of carbon from atmosphere – therefore helping to keep our planet cool. However, as swathes of forest continue to be cleared, carbon is being released back into the atmosphere.

- As we seek to slow the progress of climate change and prevent the loss of biodiversity, the health of the world’s forests is key. Knowing exactly how much carbon is stored in forests will help understand the state of our forests, how they are changing, and will advance our knowledge of the carbon cycle.

- This is where the Biomass mission comes in. Biomass – an Earth Explorer mission – takes forest counting to a new level by using a type of instrument that has never before been flown in space: a ‘P-band’ synthetic aperture radar. P-band is the longest radar wavelength available to Earth observation.

- From over 650 km above, the Biomass instrument will be able to ‘see’ through the leafy forest canopy and measure the height of the trees. This information will be used to work out how much biomass – a proxy for carbon – is being stored in forests.

- Biomass is due to be launched in 2023, but the COVID pandemic has meant that normal working procedures have had to be modified as the different ESA and industrial teams building and testing the satellite could not travel.

- ESA’s Biomass systems engineering and satellite manager, Janice Patterson, explained, “The Biomass structure was designed by OHB in Italy and manufactured by APCO Technologies in Switzerland. The original plan was for OHB to also integrate and build the structure. However, due to COVID restrictions, the consortium of engineers could not travel as normal so had to come up with novel approaches to complete the activities.

- “To overcome this issue, the task of constructing the satellite was re-assigned to Airbus in the UK, the prime contractor, with the remote support from OHB. This was skilfully carried out, which meant that the structure had been finalized by the end of 2020 and then shipped to the testing facility in Toulouse in early 2021.

- “We are now very happy to report that under the lead of Airbus and with the support of OHB, Arianespace and the Airbus test facility in France, the complete suite of mechanical tests have been successful, this included, sine vibration, acoustic, shock and clamp-band release tests.”

- Stefan Kiryenko, ESA’s lead mechanical engineer for Biomass, said, “Passing this testing campaign is a major milestone, and to see everyone steering towards a common goal is powerful and inspiring. The efficiency and superb teamwork that I witnessed was impressive. We have built a beautiful and flight worthy satellite.”

- As well as the tests that simulated the vibrations and shocks of liftoff and the release of the clamp band that secures the satellite to the rocket’s launch adapter, OHB also carried out a specific ‘thermal elastic distortion’ test. The aim here is to show that the temperature variations the satellite will encounter in space will not affect its strict pointing requirements. First indications are that these swings of temperature will not introduce any distortions that could impair the way it takes its measurements.

- Janice Patterson added, “These remarkable achievements are a credit to all the teams involved and special thanks goes to everyone who has spent months away from their families allowing us to pass this milestone.”

- The Biomass satellite will now return to the UK for further instrument integration.


Figure 7: Biomass feels the heat. ESA’s Biomass satellite undergoing a ‘thermal elastic distortion’ test, the aim of which is to show that the temperature variations that the satellite will encounter in space will not affect its strict pointing requirements. First indications are that these swings of temperature will not introduce any distortions that could impair the way it takes its measurements (image credit: Airbus, D. Marques)

• February 11, 2021: Biomass, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) forest measuring satellite is taking shape at Airbus’ site in Stevenage with the Structure Model Platform completed. In line with UK Government guidelines the Stevenage site is COVID-secure – enabling spacecraft production to continue safely. 34)


Figure 8: Biomass, ESA's forest measuring satellite, is taking shape at Airbus's site in Stevenage with the structure model platform completed. In line with UK government guidelines, the Stevenage site is COVID secure - enabling spacecraft production to continue safely (image credit: Airbus)

- Assembly of the satellite’s mechanical structure could not be carried out as planned due to COVID. But during April and May 2020, the Airbus team put in place a digital solution to enable collaboration with ESA and suppliers, ensuring progress continued on the development of the satellite’s mechanical structure.

- Airbus teams finalized the structure build in the second half of 2020 and integration hardware onto the Structure Model Platform was completed in early January 2021. The Structure Model is now at Airbus Toulouse for its mechanical test campaign.

- Richard Franklin, Managing Director, Airbus Defence and Space UK said: “Despite the pandemic the teams have really stepped up finding innovative ways to keep manufacture on track. The progress made demonstrates the high level of skills and capabilities of the Airbus teams and their commitment to deliver on the project.”

- Michael Fehringer, ESA’s Biomass Project Manager said: “The status of the structure build as of today is a remarkable achievement given the number and variety of problems the teams had to face.”

- Biomass is an ESA Earth Explorer mission due to launch in 2022. It will measure forest biomass to assess terrestrial carbon stocks and fluxes for five years. The spacecraft will carry the first spaceborne P-band synthetic aperture radar to deliver exceptionally accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass that are not obtainable by ground measurement techniques.

• October 28, 2019: Today, ESA and Arianespace signed a contract that secures the launch of the Earth Explorer Biomass satellite. With liftoff scheduled for 2022 on a Vega launch vehicle from French Guiana, this new mission is another step closer to mapping the amount of carbon stored in forests and how it changes over time though deforestation, for example. 35)


Figure 9: The contract was signed on 28 October 2019 by Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programs, (right) and Stéphane Israël, Chief Executive Officer of Arianespace (image credit: ESA)

• February 12, 2019: Set to fly in 2023, ESA’s Biomass Earth Explorer satellite with its 12-m diameter radar antenna will pierce through woodland canopies to perform a global survey of Earth’s forests – and see how they change over the course of Biomass’s five-year mission. 36)


Figure 10: Illustration of the Biomass satellite (image credit: Airbus DS)

- Trees are an integral element of our environment; they also hold clues to our collective future. Knowing the amount of carbon bound up in forest biomass will sharpen our understanding of climate change and its likely effects on the global carbon cycle.

- Biomass will achieve this using a ‘synthetic aperture radar’ to send down signals from orbit and record the resulting backscatter, building up maps of tree height and volume. To see through leafy treetop to the trees themselves, Biomass will employ long-wavelength ‘P-band’ radar, which has never previously flown in space. It will have its signals amplified to travel down from a 600-km altitude orbit down to Earth and back.

- ESA’s Directorate of Technology, Engineering and Quality worked with the Biomass mission team on the advanced signal amplifiers needed to make the mission feasible, based on the most promising semiconductor since silicon.

• October 16, 2018: How many trees are there on Earth? ESA’s Biomass mission will perform a global forest survey, harnessing the longest radar wavelength to pierce through woodland canopies. New microwave transistors made with the most promising semiconductor since silicon make this possible – and are now qualified for spaceflight. 37)

- Due for launch in 2022, Biomass’s five-year mission is to chart the biomass of Earth’s forests, and its changes over time. It will contribute to understanding of climate change and its effects on Earth’s system through the global carbon cycle. It does this using a ‘synthetic aperture radar’ to send down signals from orbit and record the resulting backscatter, to build up maps of tree height and volume, and sharpen estimates of global carbon stocks.


Figure 11: To see through leafy treetop to the trees themselves, ESA's forest-monitoring Biomass mission will employ long-wavelength ‘P-band’ radar, which has never previously flown in space. It will have its signals amplified to travel down from a 600-km-altitude orbit down to Earth and back (image credit: ESA) 38)

- “This presented a technical challenge,” explains Florence Hélière, Biomass Payload Manager. “Because of the long, meter-scale wavelength of the P-band radar, traditional vacuum tube power amplifiers would be far too big and heavy for the satellite. — Instead we turned to solid state transistors as amplifiers – but no existing technology in the world provided the performance the instrument design needed. Fortunately, in parallel, another solution had become available, following years of ESA-led development.”

- These alternative transistors are based on gallium nitride (GaN), hailed as the most promising semiconductor since silicon. If you own a BluRay player you own a tiny crystal of GaN, part of the violet laser diode that reads discs.

- Versatile GaN’s ‘wide bandgap’ nature means it has the potential to provide 10 times more radio frequency output power than traditional semiconductors, while also operating at much higher temperatures. As a plus for space, it is also inherently radiation resistant, so can cope with the space environment including unpredictable space weather caused by the Sun.


Figure 12: Andrew Barnes, Senior ESA Technology Engineer (image credit: ESA - SJM Photography)

- “More than a decade ago, ESA saw the potential of GaN technology, and the importance of developing a reliable supply chain for space use,” says senior ESA technology engineer Andrew Barnes.

- “The result, in 2008, was the GaN Reliability and Technology Transfer initiative – GREAT2, working with European research institutes and industry to manufacture and test space compatible GaN microwave transistors and integrated circuits. Our first GaN product flew aboard ESA’s Proba-V mission in 2013. - That early flight-demonstration showed the Biomass team that gallium nitride was ready for them to take up. Then, in 2014, the hard work began. Building on the experience of GREAT2, supported by ESA’s Earth Observation Program, we had to flight-qualify around 120 items in all of these 15 W and 80 W GaN-based power transistors to show they could meet mission requirements.”


Figure 13: Transistors for Biomass: Gallium nitride-based transistors are required for the Biomass mission's P-band radar, and have undergone a test campaign. Around 70 items of these 15W and 80W GaN-based power transistors were required by the mission (image credit: ESA)

- The three-year program that followed was the most extreme set of quality control processes imaginable. The work was undertaken for ESA by United Monolithic Semiconductors, responsible for the transistor technology, and Tesat-Spacecom, overseeing their assembly, packaging and space qualification, with Airbus Defence and Space overseeing the overall Biomass mission.

- To begin with, the GaN wafer batches themselves underwent radio frequency and electrical testing, and were subjected to temperature extremes and squashed or pulled apart.

- As a next step, functional circuit samples were subjected to accelerated lifetime testing, running for more than 3000 hours with no RF power output degradation to pass ‘lot acceptance testing’ (Figure 14).

- To safeguard them from the extremes of the orbital environment, the transistors needed to be fully laser-soldered within hermetic packages, followed by various tests to ensure a solid seal, ranging from X-ray inspection to hitting them and detecting the level of the echo.

- Once fully packaged, parts were tested at random from both the 15 W and 80 W qualification runs for a variety of trials such as vibration and other mechanical testing, microscopic inspection, endurance tests or signal output shape and character.

- “No failures were allowed during any testing,” added Andrew, “otherwise the entire lot had to be scrapped and manufacturing restarted.”

- The devices have also completed radiation testing – simulating the interaction with charged particles encountered in space – as well as for various destructive effects known to be triggered by operating high-power radio systems in vacuum.

- “As a result, these GaN transistors are fully cleared for integration into the final Biomass radar instrument design,” comments Andrew, “providing the right technology at the right time for this crucial Earth-observing mission. And they are also available for other ESA and European missions in the future.”


Figure 14: Accelerated radio-frequency testing of 15 W Biomass radar power transistor (image credit: ESA)

• November 9, 2017: Microwave radio signals – able to pass freely through Earth’s atmosphere as well as empty space – play a role in just about everything, including mission telemetry and telecommands, satellite services and broadcasting, navigation and timing signals and radar, along with other forms of active remote sensing. 39)

- ESA's Biomass mission is designed to track status and dynamics of tropical forests using P-band radar. Because this frequency is so low, a vacuum tube amplifier would be too heavy and bulky for the type of satellite we envisage. Instead Biomass has baselined solid state amplifiers using novel high-power semiconductor gallium nitride, harnessed for space through the ESA-led ‘GaN Reliability Enhancement and Technology Transfer Initiative’ (GREAT2) consortium.

- So, while the GaN technology has already been qualified, what we need to do is put that into a hermetically sealed package that can be flown in space – specially tailored to avoid any risk of electrical discharge or similar operating risks – and then put through rigorous lifetime testing to ensure reliability, arriving at a guaranteed mean time to failure.

- After the transistor is packaged at solid-state power amplifier (SSPA) level, we're concerned about things like overall electrical performance and thermal dissipation, checking that waste heat is carried away without affecting component reliability – along with all the usual qualification steps of vibration, shock and thermal vacuum testing. The mission needs six SSPAs in total, each of these with three packaged GaN transistors inside. Nevertheless we are qualifying a larger amount of packaged transistors to have a safe number of parts.

- Today that 6 x 6 mm prototype chip is now fabricated – also harnessing GaN – putting together a high-power amplifier, low-noise amplifier, a transmit-receive switch and a calibration coupler: what would normally involve an individual chip or circuit for each of these functions. The concept is applicable to any frequency band. In this case, we demonstrated the concept in C-band (for Sentinel-1) and it yielded three times more output power than the current amplifier on board these satellites, with savings of about 40% in terms of size.

- There were all kinds of challenges in integrating all these functions on such a small chip. For instance, having the high-power amplifier beside the low-noise amplifier – the heat from the former could for instance compromise the performance of the latter, but we were able to come up with system-level solutions, such as switching off elements when not in use.


Figure 15: Natanael Ayllon, ESA payload engineer, showing a prototype transmit/receive module on a single chip (image credit: ESA - SJM Photography)

• October 17, 2017: Thales Alenia Space has signed a contract with Airbus Defence and Space GmbH to develop the feed array system for the antenna on the European Space Agency’s Biomass spacecraft. This equipment is essential to guarantee the full satellite performance. 40)

• October 2016: The SRR (System Requirements Review) was conducted in the summer of 2016. A successful SRR is an important step in the Project’s life cycle because it begins the procurement of the individual satellite components and the build-up of the full industrial consortium. Ground-based and airborne campaigns to collect data to support the algorithm development and validation are being conducted, underpinned by a study to tackle the end-to-end performance calibration of a P-band synthetic aperture radar system in the presence of the ionosphere. 41)

• May 3, 2016: ESA and Airbus Defence and Space UK signed a €229 million contract on 29 April to build the next Earth Explorer: the Biomass satellite, due to begin its mission in 2021. The satellite will provide global maps of how much carbon is stored in the world’s forests and how this stock is changing over time, mainly through the absorption of carbon dioxide, which is released from burning fossil fuels. Biomass will also provide essential support to UN treaties on the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. 42)

- The spacecraft will carry the first spaceborne P-band synthetic aperture radar to deliver exceptionally accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass that are not obtainable by ground measurement techniques. The mission will collect frequent information on global forests to determine the distribution of above-ground biomass in these forests and measure annual changes. The five year mission will witness at least eight growth cycles in the worlds’ forests.

- By using a P-band SAR(Synthetic Aperture Radar), the mission will use all-weather imaging from space to estimate forest biomass. Biomass will also be able to measure paleo aquifers in desert regions to find new water sources in arid regions as well as contribute to observations of ice sheet dynamics, subsurface geology and forest topography. Because Biomass will see through the forest canopy to the ground, terrain height maps will be provided, improving current Digital Elevation Models in densely forested areas. Biomass data will also support REDD+(Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a UN climate change initiative aimed at reducing emissions due to deforestation, by systematically monitoring forests in vulnerable areas with no need for ground intervention.

Launch: A launch of the Biomass spacecraft is planned in 2023 on a Vega vehicle from Kourou.

Orbit: Sun-synchronous near circular dawn-dusk orbit (LTAN of 6:00/18 hours), altitude of ~666 km, depending on the different mission phases. The orbit is designed to enable repeat pass interferometric acquisitions throughout the mission’s life and to minimize the impact of ionospheric disturbances. The baseline observation principle is based on double-baseline interferometric acquisitions, with a repeat cycle of 17 days.

The strategy for meeting the interferometric baseline requirement is based on the selection of an orbit with a‘controlled drift’. The amount of drift between successive orbital cycles is chosen to match the interferometric baseline requirement. In practice, the baseline is achieved by flying the satellite in an orbit where the altitude is slightly higher or lower than that of the exact repeating orbit. Because of this small drift, the resulting orbit will have a quasi-repeat cycle of 17 days for the baseline interferometric phase.

A double-baseline interferometric mode provides two interferometric acquisitions with temporal decorrelation within the requirements in order to improve the retrieval accuracy. As shown in Figure 16, this mode consists of a set of three acquisitions with a fixed baseline to retrieve the forest height, while the orbit repeat cycle is kept to a minimum to ensure good temporal coherence between acquisitions spaced by two repeat cycles.

In such a way, each of the three swaths is imaged over three repeat cycles, before the satellite is rolled to observe the next one. The complete coverage is therefore achieved by matching the overall combined interferometric swath (obtained after nine repeat cycles) of 160 km with the orbit fundamental interval, achieving an orbit repeat cycle of 17 days and a global coverage in just 5 months for the baseline interferometric phase.


Figure 16: Double-baseline interferometry using three interleaved swaths (major cycle). The blue lines represent the swaths, while the filled blocks are the areas where interferometric acquisition can be performed. The grey blocks represent acquisitions in the adjacent ground intervals (image credit: ESA)

Sensor complement: (P-SAR)

P-SAR (P- Synthetic Aperture Radar)

P-SAR operates in a stripmap mode with a swath illuminated by a single antenna beam, i.e. an imaging configuration similar to that of the ERS-1/2 SAR. Global coverage is obtained by the interleaved stripmap operations among three complementary swaths as described previously. The beam re-pointing is performed through a roll maneuver of the spacecraft, as there is ample time over the poles for such operations. This solution using the spacecraft rolling was preferred over the possibility of electronic beam switching due to its simplicity (Ref. 25).

Instrument Concept A: A single sideband transmit pulse (linear FM) is generated, up-converted, amplified and sent to the polarization switch in the CEU (Central Electronics Unit). The polarization switch, operating at low power level, toggles between the V and H transmit channels at each pulse repetition interval. The modulated transmit pulse is then amplified in the corresponding polarization channel in the transmit unit, routed to the circulator unit and radiated through the feed array. The HPA (High Power Amplifier) is made of three SSPAs (Solid-State Power Amplifiers) in parallel, each delivering a peak RF power of 120 W with 10 % duty cycle and PRF (Pulse Repetition Frequency ) of 3000 Hz on average. Because of the concentration of high peak power after the power combiner, multipaction must be avoided by an appropriate circuit design of the radar front-end part, between the HPA output and the power divider in the feed array.

In reception, the echo signals (V and H) are routed through the circulator unit to the receive unit where filtering and amplification are performed. They are then routed to the CEU for analog-to-digital/down-conversion, data compression and packetization. In addition, the LNA (Low Noise Amplifiers) are protected by a limiter at their inputs against possible strong interference signals emitted by the SOTR (Space Objects Tracking Radars) and wind profilers.

The ICU (Instrument Control Unit) receives commands and information from the platform computer. It sets up the instrument operation parameters, controls image acquisitions, relays telemetry information and manages fault/limit checking and takes action where appropriate. It also maintains the instrument time reference, synchronized to an on-board GPS (Global Positioning System) clock. The instrument power unit converts the 28 V DC unregulated power supply from the platform to appropriately conditioned DC power for all the electronics units, as well as provides the heater power for instrument thermal control. The instrument mass (including margin) is 202 kg with the NG reflector, and 275 kg with the HC reflector. The maximum required DC power is 463 W for both reflector options and the maximum data rate is 115 Mbit/s prior to compression.


Figure 17: Illustration of instrument concept A (top) and concept B (bottom), image credit: ESA

Instrument Concept B: The linear transmit pulse is split in the BFN (Beam Forming Network) and routed to two parallel transmit chains and amplified. A polarization switch is placed after the HPA, in order to select the transmit polarization in each of the TRUs (Transmit/Receive Units), which delivers a peak RF power of 120 W with 12 % duty cycle and a PRF of 3050 Hz on average. The two pairs of radiators (upper and lower) are fed separately by the respective TRUs and illuminate the reflector. Splitting the power in two parallel transmit channels helps avoiding potential multipaction problems.

In reception, the echo signals from the two radiator pairs are filtered and amplified in four parallel receive chains (TRU-1: V and H and TRU-2: V and H). Those are recombined in the BFN to form the V and H signals and routed to the CEU. They are finally down-converted and digitized, followed by data compression and packetization. As any amplitude or phase imbalances between the channels would affect the beam pattern, the channel stability is ensured by appropriate design of the TRUs, i.e. of the HPAs and of the LNAs. An additional phase equalization can be foreseen for compensating relative phase drifts due to aging (included in the CEU). A limiter and an isolation switch at the LNA input protect them against possible strong interference signals. The instrument mass (including margin) is 206 kg. The maximum required DC power is 221 W and the maximum data rate is 117 Mbit/s prior to compression.

Both concepts use a single-offset reflector antenna system consisting of a feed array and a large deployable mesh reflector with a circular projected aperture diameter of 11.5 m – 12 m, depending on the concept. The selected configuration is characterized by a relatively short focal length in order to minimize the distance between the spacecraft and the reflector. Because of this, the reflector, when illuminated by a linearly polarized spherical wave from the feed, would produce a significant cross-polar radiation (12–15 dB below the co-polar peak gain) in its main beam, which has the form of a difference pattern (narrow null along the principal elevation plane). To comply with the cross-polarization ratio requirement, a pre-compensation technique is then implemented at the level of the feed. Stacking of the patches is necessary to achieve a sufficient bandwidth at the level of the feed subsystem (<10 MHz). The feed assembly is made of multilayer sandwich structure, consisting of metalized carbon or Kevlar-fiber-reinforced plastic sheets and Kevlar honeycomb or Rohacell foam core, thus low mass. Concept A uses three pairs of radiators with tapered excitation in elevation, whereas only two pairs of radiators with equal excitation are used for Concept B.


Figure 18: Feed array consisting of 3 x 2 stacked circular patches and body-mounted on the satellite Concept A (left); Deployable feed array consisting of 2 x 2 stacked square patches on a support structure Concept B (right), image credit: ESA

The radio frequency and digital electronics of the Biomass SAR instrument use well-established technologies thanks to the low radar frequency (UHF band) and narrow system bandwidth (6 MHz). However, the combination of the low frequency and high peak RF power increases the risk of multipaction. Therefore, a number of specific risk-retirement activities were undertaken and specific measures were implemented in the radar front-end design.

The swath width is around 50 km, which is achievable in full-polarimetric mode at three incidences (Figure 19). The operating incidence range is between 23° and 35°, as required for the mission. 43)


Figure 19: P-SAR viewing geometry (image credit: BIOMASS Team)

P-band Antenna Feed S/S (Subsystem):

The BIOMASS SAR P-Band antenna consists of a large deployable reflector antenna system with an offset geometry that results in high cross-polar level from the reflector, this is compensated with an adequate design of the reflector Feed S/S to generate a “cross-polar” pattern with proper amplitude and phase to cancel the reflector cross-polar down to admissible values. 44)

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44) Margarita Naranjo, Antonio Montesano, Fernando Monjas, Mario Gómez, Rodrigo Manrique, Florence Hélière, Kees Van’t Klooster, “BIOMASS P-band SAR Reflector Antenna - Feed S/S Breadboarding,” Proceedings of EUSAR 2014 (10th European Conference on Synthetic Aperture Radar), Berlin, Germany, June 3-5, 2014

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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