A US-French satellite that will map nearly all of the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers went into orbit on Friday.
The pre-dawn launch aboard a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California capped a very successful year for NASA.
Dubbed SWOT – short for Surface Water and Ocean Topography – the satellite is needed more than ever as climate change worsens droughts, floods and coastal erosion, scientists say.
“We’re going to be able to see things that we just couldn’t see before…and really understand where the water is at any given time,” said Benjamin Hamlington of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The size of an SUV, the satellite will measure the height of water over more than 90% of the Earth’s surface, allowing scientists to track the flow and identify potential high-risk areas. It will also study millions of lakes as well as 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers) of rivers, from source to mouth.
The satellite will beam radar pulses back to Earth, the signals bouncing back to be received by a pair of antennae, one at each end of a 33-foot (10-meter) pole.
It should be able to distinguish currents and eddies less than 13 miles (21 kilometers) in diameter, as well as areas of the ocean where masses of water of varying temperatures merge.
NASA’s current fleet of nearly 30 Earth observation satellites cannot distinguish such faint features. And while these older satellites can map the extent of lakes and rivers, their measurements aren’t as detailed, said Tamlin Pavelsky of the University of North Carolina, who is part of the mission.
Perhaps most importantly, the satellite will reveal the location and speed of sea level rise and shifting coastlines, critical to saving lives and property. It will span the globe between the Arctic and Antarctica at least once every three weeks, as it orbits over 890 kilometers above sea level. The mission is expected to last three years.
NASA and the French Space Agency collaborated on the $1.2 billion project, with participation from Britain and Canada.
“What a spectacular, truly spectacular launch,” said NASA program manager Nadya Vinogradova-Shiffer. “It’s a pivotal moment, and I’m very excited about it.”
Already recycled, the first-stage thruster returned to Vandenberg eight minutes after takeoff to fly again one day.
This is the last milestone this year for NASA. Other highlights include glamorous shots of the universe from the new Webb Space Telescope; the fatal blow of the Dart spacecraft into an asteroid during the first planetary defense test; and the recent return of the Orion capsule from the moon after a test flight.
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