A US-French satellite designed to carry out an unprecedented global survey of Earth’s surface waters was carried by a SpaceX rocket early on Friday. The mission is expected to shed new light on the mechanisms and effects of climate change.
As it roared off its launch pad at the Vandenberg US Space Force Base, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, the Falcon 9 booster, which is owned and operated by Elon Musk’s commercial rocket company, lit up the early morning sky along the coast of California.
A live webcast from the US space agency showed the liftoff, which was led by NASA.
The satellite was carried into orbit by the upper stage of Falcon 9 within nine minutes. Before slowing to a gentle landing at the base, the reusable lower stage detonated from the rocket and flew back to Earth, emitting sonic booms.
The mission’s payload, the Surface Water and Sea Geology satellite, or SWOT, was delivered to its own beginning circle around 530 miles (850 km) over the planet under an hour after send-off. Video from a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed SWOT drifting endlessly.
According to NASA, approximately half an hour later, mission control at the French space agency CNES in Toulouse, France, reported that it had recovered the first complete set of signals from the satellite, confirming that SWOT’s systems were functioning.
The satellite’s most important component is cutting-edge microwave radar technology, which is used to collect high-definition measurements of rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and oceans across ninety percent of the globe.
The information, accumulated from radar clears no less than two times like clockwork, will be utilized to upgrade sea flow models, reinforce climate and environment estimates and help in overseeing freshwater supplies in dry spell stricken districts, specialists say.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles and CNES was primarily responsible for the construction of the SUV-sized satellite’s components.
Climate tipping point?
The mission’s main focus is on figuring out how oceans take in heat and carbon dioxide from the air to naturally regulate global temperatures and reduce climate change.
Scientists estimate that oceans have taken in more than 90% of the excess heat trapped in Earth’s atmosphere by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
SWOT will be able to measure minute differences in surface elevations around the smaller currents and eddies that are thought to be responsible for much of the ocean’s heat and carbon drawdown by scanning the seas from orbit.
A crucial question, namely, when oceans begin to release rather than absorb large amounts of heat back into the atmosphere, intensifying rather than reducing global warming, can be answered with a better understanding of that mechanism.
The study of the effects of rising ocean levels on coastal areas will also benefit from SWOT’s ability to identify much smaller surface features over much larger areas than that of previous satellites.
With the ability to track the entire length of nearly all rivers wider than 330 feet (100 meters) and more than one million lakes and reservoirs larger than a few New York City blocks, freshwater bodies are another important focus of SWOT.
Over the course of SWOT’s three-year mission, researchers will be able to better track changes in Earth’s rivers and lakes during major weather events and seasonal changes by repeatedly taking inventory of the planet’s water resources.
The Ka-band microwave frequency of the SWOT radar instrument enables its scans to penetrate cloud cover and darkness to map observations in two dimensions.
Data collected at specific points or from satellites that could only follow measurements along a one-dimensional line were used in previous studies of water bodies.
Within a few months, the satellite is expected to begin producing research data.
SWOT was one of 15 missions that the National Research Council said NASA should do in the next ten years. It took nearly 20 years to develop and had input from counterparts in Canada and Britain.