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 predawn sky along California’s coast as it roared off its launch pad at the Vandenberg US Space Force Base, about 260km northwest of Los Angeles.
The lift-off, directed by Nasa, was shown live on a US 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 850km above the planet less than an hour after launch. Video from a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed Swot floating away.
About half an 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.
The centrepiece of the satellite is advanced microwave radar technology to collect high-definition measurements of oceans, lakes, reservoirs and rivers over 90 per cent 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 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.
One large 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 minimise climate change. – Reuters