Leicester's part in new science museum display
Prof David Llewellyn-Jones on how a space project is tracking global climate change
Last week, in London's Science Museum, I watched Prince Charles opening an exhibition concerning how climate changes and how we observe it. I was invited because I am closely involved in a space project dedicated to the task of measuring the temperature of the Earth's sea surfaces, for climate monitoring and research.
The most recent satellite instrument in this programme, called AATSR, is on display in this exhibition and I appear, as a "talking head'', on a screen beside the exhibit. I have been involved in this space programme, as principal investigator, for over 20 years.
Before its move to London, the instrument was on display in the University of Leicester as an excellent focus for showing physics students how the skills and principles which they learn in that same building can be applied to challenging projects of environmental importance. One of my colleagues, when lecturing to students nearby, would sometimes take them out to see the model, to emphasise points he was making. It also illustrates the tremendous value of space to our everyday life: not only telephoning overseas, watching TV and navigating cars, but also, particularly beneficial, is the technology of looking down at the Earth from space – Earth Observation. Not only is this useful for map-making or just looking at Google Earth to see our back garden, it is important for observing the weather and climate.
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Space instruments have become so accurate and reliable they can be used for monitoring our climate and the AATSR instrument does just this. It continually measures the temperature of the ocean surface, all over the globe, to an accuracy that would be hard to achieve if we were measuring the temperature of our bathwater!
I was involved when the idea of designing this space instrument was first being explored and the interesting fact is that the people involved represented an unusual and quite special mix of skills and experience.
There were meteorologists and atmospheric scientists who understood the importance of good stable observations for climate, and there were also those who understood the technology of designing and building such instrumentation and preparing it for launch into space.
In the museum, AATSR will be seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of them young. It can remind people of the way in which creative communication between scientists, engineers and other specialists, understanding between them the problems and possible solutions, can generate new ideas in our universities, institutes and industry.
David Llewellyn-Jones is Professor Emeritus of Earth Observation Science in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester.