Airbus will be developing the CRISTAL mission for the European Space Agency, a satellite dedicated to monitoring ice and the polar regions, for evidence of climate change. Thales Alenia Space will make the IRIS altimeter required.

Initiated by the European Commission, the Copernicus Earth Observation Programme relies on several satellites of the Sentinel family. The European Space Agency (ESA) is responsible for this space mission. In this regard, seven satellites are already operational and others are planned, like Sentinel-6A, which will be launched in November. The longer-term future of the Copernicus programme relies on six new missions in preparation, including CRISTAL, focused on the topography of polar ice and snow.


CRISTAL is an acronym for CopeRnicus polar Ice and Snow Topography ALtimeter. As you might guess, it’s about measuring from Earth orbit, not only the thickness of sea ice (the pack-ice), as well as that of the snow cover. Determining the height of the polar ice-sheets is also one of the objectives.
The CRISTAL mission will also continue to improve the collection of data initiated by other ESA satellites, like CryoSat 2.

To bring CRISTAL, the launch of which is planned for 2027, to fruition, ESA entrusted construction of the satellite to Airbus Defence and Space. The IRIS altimeter (Interferometric Radar Altimeter for Ice and Snow) aboard will be project-managed by Thales Alenia Space which brings recognised expertise in this field.
The ESA video below gives an idea of how CRISTAL will operate with the IRIS altimeter.

While IRIS draws on the heritage of earlier altimeters of Thales Alenia Space, it brings to bear a bi-frequency radar to measure the thickness of sea ice and also the snow which covers it. CRISTAL will therefore collect data which will be of immediate benefit while it is about our future. Immediate, since, for example, the drift speed of sea ice can be monitored and icebergs detected. Obviously, these are very important parameters for sea operations (some of which are scientific) in the polar oceans. CRISTAL also concerns our future, as Hervé Derrey, CEO of Thales Alenia Space, emphasises: “The polar regions have a real influence on global climate models on a world scale, on thermohaline circulation and on the global energy balance.” The Director of the ESA’s Earth observation programmes, Josef Aschbacher confirms this aspect of CRISTAL which he describes as an “essential mission” which will be “crucial for monitoring climate indicators, including variability of Arctic sea ice, as well as the melting of the ice cap and pack-ice.”

Observation of the Earth, which gives us the ability to take our planet’s pulse and monitor climate change, is the subject of a permanent exhibition at Toulouse’s Cité de l’espace called Spaceship Earth. The travelling version of the exhibition will be on display in Montpellier, at the Maison Départementale de l’Environnement from 24 October 2020 to 24 January 2021.




    Conformément aux directives gouvernementales de lutte contre la propagation du virus Covid-19, la Cité de l’espace ferme ses portes du jeudi 29 octobre à 18h jusqu’à nouvel ordre.



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