SpaceX rocket sends first water survey mission into orbit

Published December 17, 2022
In this image released by NASA, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with NASA's Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Santa Barbara, California, on Friday. — AFP
In this image released by NASA, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with NASA's Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Santa Barbara, California, on Friday. — AFP

LOS ANGELES: A SpaceX rocket blasted off early on Friday carrying a US-French satellite designed to conduct an unprecedented global survey of Earth’s surface waters, a mission expected to shed new light on the mechanics and consequences of climate change.

The Falcon 9 booster, owned and operated by Elon Musk’s commercial rocket company, lit up the pre-dawn sky along California’s coast as it roared off its launch pad at the Vandenberg Space Force Base, 260 km north-west of Los Angeles.

The liftoff, directed by Nasa, was shown live on a space agency webcast.

The Falcon 9’s upper stage, carrying the satellite, reached orbit within nine minutes. Moments earlier, the reusable lower stage separated from the rocket and flew itself back to Earth, unleashing sonic booms before slowing to a gentle landing at the base.

The mission’s payload, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite, or SWOT, was released to its own starting orbit about 850 kilometres above the planet less than a hour after launch. Video from a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed SWOT floating away.

About a half hour later, mission control for the French space agency CNES in Toulouse, France, reported it had recovered the first full set of signals from the satellite, confirming that SWOT’s systems were operational, Nasa said.

Water curvey

The centrepiece of the satellite is advanced microwave radar technology to collect high-definition measurements of oceans, lakes, reservoirs and rivers over 90% of the globe.

The data, compiled from radar sweeps at least twice every 21 days, will be used to enhance ocean-circulation models, bolster weather and climate forecasts and aid in managing freshwater supplies in drought-stricken regions, researchers say.

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

Nearly 20 years in development with contributions from counterparts in Canada and Britain, SWOT was one of 15 missions listed by the National Research Council as projects NASA should undertake in the coming decade.

CLIMATE TIPPING POINT? One major thrust of the mission is to explore how oceans absorb atmospheric heat and carbon dioxide, in a process that naturally regulates global temperatures and has helped to minimize climate change.

Oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped in Earth’s atmosphere by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, scientists estimate.

Scanning the seas from orbit, SWOT will be able to measure fine differences in surface elevations around the smaller currents and eddies where much the oceans’ drawdown of heat and carbon is believed to occur.

Understanding that mechanism will help answer a pivotal question - what is the tipping point at which oceans start releasing, rather than absorbing, large amounts of heat back to the atmosphere, thus intensifying global warming instead of limiting it.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2022

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