The ‘White Dragon’ satellite will keep watch over our clouds

A new era of atmospheric research launches today.
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Concept art of EarthCARE satellite scanning clouds above Earth
EarthCARE's Japanese nickname, 'Hakuryu,' means 'White Dragon.' ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) has conducted numerous satellite missions for its ongoing Earth Explorer program since 2009, but its new cloud-centric project is reportedly its most complex yet. Set to launch later today aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base, EarthCARE will utilize four state-of-the-art tools to offer researchers “a holistic view of the interplay between clouds, aerosols, and radiation,” according to its launch announcement.

Despite the near-constant presence of clouds above us, experts still don’t understand much about their relationship with aerosols—the extremely fine, solid particles and water droplets suspended in air. To help fill this knowledge gap, the ESA recently collaborated with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to design EarthCARE. Short for “Earth Cloud Aerosol,” the EarthCARE satellite will gather vital data to help improve cloud development modeling, behavioral predictions, and better climate models and weather prediction. For the first time ever, the orbital satellite will also measure “vertical profiles” and fall speeds of aerosols and cloud particles, as well as measure water droplet and ice crystal distribution throughout clouds.

[Related: A new AI-powered satellite will create Google Maps for methane pollution.]

To amass all this information, EarthCARE will deploy at its lowest possible altitude of roughly 248-miles to make the most of its four separate onboard instruments. An atmospheric lidar system will assess cloud-top information while JAXA’s cloud profiling radar will investigate clouds’ internal dynamics, overall motion, and vertical structuring. Next to those tools, a broadband radiometer will measure both incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation as a multispectral imager provides broader wavelength data. All this cumulative data will help expand researchers’ understanding of the atmospheric relationships between clouds, aerosols, and planetary radiation.

Concept art of EarthCARE above Earth
Credit: ESA

As New Atlas also notes, the EarthCARE satellite will continue JAXA’s longstanding tradition of providing impressive nicknames to a mission’s official title. In this case, EarthCARE is also known as “Hakuryu,” Japanese for “White Dragon.” According to the ESA, “Hakuryu” was chosen because it “embodies the distinctive characteristics of the satellite’s appearance, with its white body and solar panel resembling a long tail.”

“In Japanese mythology, dragons are ancient and divine creatures that govern water and fly in the sky: an appropriate metaphor for a mission that will study clouds and aerosols,” the agency writes. It’s also no coincidence that Hakuryu is launching in 2024, the “tatsu-doshi,” or Year of the Dragon. In Japanese lore, the ancient, divine creatures often oversee water while flying through the skies.

EarthCARE is on track to launch at 6:20pm EST and will be livestreamed on ESA WebTV and YouTube.