SpaceX launches NASA water monitoring satellite

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a $1.2 billion satellite early Friday to monitor Earth’s oceans, rivers and lakes with high-powered radar and other sensitive instruments to better assess the movement of the water of the planet and the impacts of climate change.

It was the first of three launches planned in two days for the Californian rocket maker, including a flight to orbit two SES communications satellites on Friday afternoon and another to launch 54 Starlink internet relay stations on Saturday. This flight will use a first stage booster performing a record 15th flight.

The triple header began in California before dawn on Friday with the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography – SWOT – spacecraft, an international project led by NASA with participation from the French space agency (CNES), the Canada and the United Kingdom.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts away from Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California carrying a $1.2 billion satellite designed to monitor water levels across the planet, helping scientists find out more about the effects of climate change. / Credit: NASA/SpaceX

The satellite is designed to measure the height of water over 70% of the planet every three weeks, generating one terabyte of data per day.

“Earth is a planet of water, and SWOT will bring us a revolutionary advance in our understanding of how water moves around our planet,” said Karen St. Germain, director of the science division of the Earth from NASA.

“It starts in the oceans, it is routed to land through the atmosphere and eventually returns to the oceans. This is the water cycle. And as our climate changes, the water cycle amplifies.”

That means many wetlands are getting wetter, she said, and dry areas are getting drier.

In areas where too much water is a problem, “SWOT will help us understand how that water moves and better predict when there may be a flood, whether it’s a flood in a coastal community in due to storm surge, or vulnerability to flooding due to severe weather inland,” St. Germain said.

In areas that are drying out, she added, high-resolution SWOT measurements “can be really critical information for smart water management, whether it’s for food production or just to support communities. local communities”.

A camera on the second stage of Falcon 9 shows the SWOT satellite being released to fly on its own.  / Credit: SpaceX

A camera on the second stage of Falcon 9 shows the SWOT satellite being released to fly on its own. / Credit: SpaceX

The mission began at 6:46 a.m. EST (3:46 a.m. local time) when the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage engines burst to life with a fiery exhaust jet, lighting up the pre-dawn sky as the booster s away from Vandenberg. Space Force Base northwest of Los Angeles.

The launch was originally scheduled for Thursday, but the flight was delayed a day to give engineers more time to assess the first-stage rocket motors for possible water intrusion following torrential rain. No problems were found and the rocket was cleared for launch.

After propelling the 4,850-pound SWOT satellite out of the lower atmosphere, the first stage, making its sixth flight, turned around and returned to an airstrip in Vandenberg, marking SpaceX’s 156th booster recovery and his seventh in California.

After two second-stage engine firings, SWOT was released into a 530-mile-high orbit carrying it around the planet 14 times a day, passing over every point on Earth between 78 degrees north and south latitude. .

The satellite features two large solar arrays and a sophisticated Ka-band radar interferometer, dubbed KaRin, comprising two antennas that will extend opposite each other, separating at a distance of 30 feet. Each antenna will collect data on two 30-mile-wide bands on either side of the satellite.

Radar pulses emitted at the surface will be reflected back to SWOT. By measuring slight differences in arrival times and angles of reflected beams, computer software can infer the height of the water below.

Another instrument, an Earth-facing altimeter, will measure the height of water directly below the SWOT spacecraft and a microwave radiometer will collect data allowing scientists to correct for the effects of water vapor, which affects propagation of radar beams.

Artist's impression of the SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite in orbit with its solar arrays and two T-shaped Ka-band radar antennae deployed.  / Credit: NASA

Artist’s impression of the SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite in orbit with its solar arrays and two T-shaped Ka-band radar antennae deployed. / Credit: NASA

The mission also uses additional equipment to measure SWOT altitude and velocity with extreme precision, a requirement to accurately derive KaRin’s water height and Earth-pointing altimeter.

“Data from SWOT will inform communities around the world, from inland water managers and agricultural producers to coastal communities who face increased risk of flooding and disaster planning and preparedness” , said St. Germain.

Along with providing high-resolution ocean height data, “we’ll go from a few thousand inland water bodies, lakes and reservoirs to millions,” she said. “So a huge positive impact for those who rely on knowledge of inland water levels to manage water for everything from agriculture to human consumption.”

NASA’s cost for the SWOT mission was $807.4 million. The French space agency – Center National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) – spent $363 million, Canada contributed $11.4 million and the UK another $15 million. The mission should last at least three years.

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