SpaceX launches NASA’s SWOT mission to uncover the secrets of the ocean

NASA launched its SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite mission on December 16, 2022 (Nasa)

NASA has launched a satellite aboard a SpaceX rocket to conduct the world’s first-ever survey of Earth’s surface waters.

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite lifted off Friday morning from US Space Force Base Vandenberg, about 275 km (170 miles) northwest of Los Angeles, in an attempt to provide a glimpse without precedent of the planet’s oceans, lakes and rivers.

The satellite, the first of its kind, incorporates advanced microwave radar technology to collect high-definition surface water measurements covering 70% of the planet.

The data, compiled from radar scans of the planet at least twice every 21 days, will be used to improve ocean circulation models, bolster weather and climate predictions and help manage scarce freshwater supplies in the drought-stricken regions, according to the researchers.

Components of the SUV-sized satellite were built primarily by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles and the French space agency CNES.

Nearly 20 years in development by the US space agency with contributions from its counterparts in Canada and Britain, SWOT was one of 15 missions listed by the National Research Council as projects NASA is expected to undertake over the course of of the next decade.

One of the main goals of the mission is to explore how the oceans absorb atmospheric heat and carbon dioxide in a process that naturally regulates global temperatures and has helped minimize climate change.

It is estimated that the oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Scanning the seas from orbit, SWOT will be able to accurately measure fine differences in surface elevation around smaller currents and eddies where much of the decrease in heat and ocean carbon occurs, scientists say.

Understanding the mechanism by which this occurs will help answer a crucial question: what is the tipping point at which the oceans begin to release, rather than absorb, large amounts of heat into the atmosphere, thus intensifying global warming ?

SWOT’s ability to discern smaller surface features will also help study the impacts of sea level rise on coastal areas.

More accurate data along tidal zones would help predict how far inland storm surge flooding can penetrate and the extent of saltwater intrusion in estuaries, areas wetlands and aquifers.

Freshwater bodies are another key SWOT focus, equipped to observe the full length of almost any river over 330 feet (100 meters), as well as over a million lakes and reservoirs larger than a few blocks from New York.

The repeated inventory of Earth’s water resources during the three-year SWOT mission will allow researchers to better track the fluctuations of the planet’s rivers and lakes during seasonal changes and major weather events.

NASA's SWOT satellite launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 16, 2022 (Nasa)

NASA’s SWOT satellite launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 16, 2022 (Nasa)

SWOT’s main radar instrument operates at the so-called Ka-band frequency of the microwave spectrum, allowing its scans to penetrate cloud cover and darkness over wide swathes of the Earth’s surface. This allows scientists to accurately map observations in two dimensions, independent of weather or time of day, and cover large geographic areas faster than before.

Previous studies of water masses relied on data taken at specific points, such as river or ocean gauges, or from satellites that could only track measurements along a one-dimensional line, forcing scientists fill data gaps by extrapolation.

If all goes as planned, the SWOT satellite will begin producing research data within a few months.

“A global inventory of water resources will help scientists better understand where water is, where it comes from, and where it goes,” NASA said in a statement.

“The observations will benefit the people of Earth by helping to improve flood predictions, improving models used to monitor droughts, and improving sea level rise predictions.”

Additional agency reports.

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