A NASA-led international satellite mission is set to blastoff from southern California early Thursday as part of a larger Earth science project to conduct a survey of the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers for the first time.
Dubbed SWOT, short for “surface water and ocean topography,” the advanced radar satellite is designed to give scientists an unprecedented view of the life-giving fluid that covers 70% of the planet, shedding new light on the mechanics and consequences of climate change.
The Falcon 9 rocket, owned and operated by billionaire Elon Musk’s commercial launch company SpaceX, was set to take off before dawn Thursday from the US space force’s Vandenberg base about 170 miles (275km) northwest of Los Angeles. in orbit
If all goes according to plan, the average satellite will provide SUV research data within a few months.
Nearly 20 years in development, Swot incorporates radar technology that scientists say can collect measurements of the surface height of oceans, lakes, reservoirs and rivers, in a specific definition over 90% of the globe.
“It’s really the first mission to observe almost all the water on the planet’s surface,” said Ben Hamlington, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who also leads NASA’s spaceflight team.
One major thrust of the mission is to explore how the ocean absorbs atmospheric heat and carbon dioxide in a natural process that regulates global temperatures and climate change.
Ascending the seas from orbit, Swot is designed to precisely measure the fine differences in surface elevations around minor currents and intrusions, where much of the ocean’s removal of heat and carbon is believed to occur. And Swot can do this with 10 times greater resolution than existing technologies, according to JPL.
The oceans are estimated to have absorbed more than 90% more of the excess heat in the Earth’s atmosphere from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
The mechanism by which this happens will help climate scientists to answer the main question: “What is the threshold at which the oceans begin to release, than absorb, return huge amounts of heat to the atmosphere and accelerate global warming, than stop it?” Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer, Swot project scientist at Nasa Washington.
SWOT’s ability to identify small surface features can also be used to study the impact of rising ocean levels on coastlines.
More accurate data across tidal zones will help predict the extent to which storm surge flooding may penetrate inland, and the extent of saltwater intrusion into estuaries, wetlands and groundwater aquifers.
Taking an inventory of the Earth’s water resources, often in a three-year Swot mission, will allow researchers to better track fluctuations in the planet’s rivers and lakes during seasonal changes and major weather events.
NASA SWOT freshwater science lead Tamlin Pavelsky said that collecting such data is related to “getting a pulse of the world’s water system, so we’ll be able to see when it’s running and we’ll be able to see when it’s slowing down.”
The Swot radar instrument operates in the so-called Ka-band microwave frequency spectrum, allowing scanning of cloud cover and darkness to penetrate large swathes of land. This allows scientists to accurately describe their observations in two dimensions regardless of the weather or time of day and over large geographic areas much faster than previously possible.
By comparison, previous studies of bodies of water relied on data taken at specific points, such as river or ocean gauges, or from satellites that can only track measurements along a one-dimensional line, requiring scientists to fill in the data gaps by extrapolation.
“Instead of giving us an elevation line, it gives us an elevation map, and it just changes the whole game,” Pavelsky said.
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