A US-European satellite designed to extend a decades-long measurement of global sea surface heights was on Saturday launched into orbit from California.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the satellite blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:17am and arced southward over the Pacific Ocean. The Falcon’s first stage flew back to the launch site and landed for reuse.
The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite was released from the second stage about an hour later. It then deployed its solar panels and made first contact with controllers.
Named for a former NASA official who had a key role in developing space-based oceanography, the satellite’s main instrument is an extremely accurate radar altimeter that would bounce energy off the sea surface as it sweeps over Earth’s oceans.
An identical twin, Sentinel-6B, is to be launched in 2025 to ensure continuity of the record.
Space-based sea level measurements have been uninterrupted since the 1992 launch of the US-French satellite TOPEX-Poseidon, which was followed by a series of satellites including the Jason-3.
Sea surface heights are affected by heating and cooling of water, allowing scientists to use the altimeter data to detect such weather-influencing conditions as the warm El Nino and the cool La Nina.
The measurements are also important for understanding overall sea level rise due to global warming, which scientists say is a risk to the world’s coastlines and billions of people.
“Our Earth is a system of intricately connected dynamics between land, ocean, ice, atmosphere and also of course our human communities, and that system is changing,” NASA Earth Science Division Director Karen St Germain said in a pre-launch briefing on Friday.
“Because 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean, the oceans play an enormous role in how the whole system changes,” she said.
The new satellite is expected to have unprecedented accuracy.
“This is an extremely important parameter for climate monitoring,” the European Space Agency’s director of Earth observation Josef Aschbacher told reporters last week.
“We know that sea level is rising,” Aschbacher said. “The big question is, by how much, how quickly.”
Other instruments on board would measure how radio signals pass through the atmosphere, providing data on atmospheric temperature and humidity that can help improve global weather forecasts.
Europe and the US are sharing the US$1.1 billion cost of the mission, which includes the twin satellite.
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