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European Space Agency (ESA) engineers are running the final checks on the agency's CryoSat satellite, before it is shipped to Russia for an autumn launch.

The satellite will spend three years in orbit, monitoring the thickness of the ice sheets at the North Pole pole. Data from submarines suggests that global ice cover is thinning rapidly. This information, gathered in the 1960s, 70s and 90s suggests that over the last 40 years, the ice in the Arctic has become 40 per cent thinner, according to the BBC.

Information from CryoSat should help answer the question rather more conclusively, and researchers are literally chomping at the bit to get going:

"We are all on tenterhooks, waiting for CryoSat to give us the first view of what has been happening to the thickness of the sea ice around the North Pole since 1998, the last year for which submarine data are available," UCL's Dr Seymour Laxon told the BBC.

CryoSat will be measuring two different types of polar ice: sea ice and land-based ice sheets. Both have an impact on local and global weather systems. For example, sea ice affects regional temperatures and ocean currents, while ice sheets can have a direct impact on sea level.

On board CryoSat, the SIRAL radar altimeter is capable of measuring the heights of either kind of ice, down to the centimetre. Previous radar altimeters have only been able to provide data on large-scale homogeneous ice surfaces, ESA says.

The SIRAL instrument will also be able to record detailed views of irregular sloping edges of land ice as well as non-homogenous ocean ice. The researchers will use it to measure annual variations in the thickness of the sea ice, as well as the overall change in the larger, land-based ice sheets.

Once the final checks are completed, CryoSat will begin its journey to Plesetsk Cosmodrome about 800 km north of Moscow in Russia. There it will be launched into orbit on board a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile SS-19 launcher, now known as Rockot. ®

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