A US-French satellite that will map nearly all of the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers went into orbit on Friday.
Dubbed SWOT, short for Surface Water and Ocean Topography, the satellite is needed more than ever as climate change worsens droughts, floods and coastal erosion, scientists say.
“We’ll be able to see things that we just couldn’t see before… and really understand where the water is at any given time,” said Benjamin Hamlington at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
About the size of an SUV, the satellite will measure the height of water over more than 90% of the Earth’s surface, allowing scientists to track flow and identify potential high-risk areas. It will also survey millions of lakes and 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers) of rivers, from headwaters to mouth.
The satellite will fire radar pulses back to Earth, with the signals bouncing back to be received by a pair of antennas, one at each end of a 33-foot (10-meter) arm.
You should be able to distinguish currents and eddies less than 13 miles (21 kilometers) wide, as well as areas of the ocean where masses of water of different temperatures meet.
NASA’s current fleet of nearly 30 Earth-observing satellites cannot distinguish such faint features. And while these older satellites can map the extent of lakes and rivers, their measurements aren’t as detailed, said Tamlin Pavelsky of the University of North Carolina, who is part of the mission.
Perhaps most important, the satellite will reveal the location and rate of sea level rise and changing coastlines, key to saving lives and property. It will span the globe between the Arctic and Antarctic at least once every three weeks, while orbiting more than 550 miles (890 kilometers) high. The mission is expected to last three years.
NASA and the French Space Agency collaborated on the $1.2 billion project, with the participation of Britain and Canada.
“What a spectacular, truly spectacular launch,” said NASA program manager Nadya Vinogradova-Shiffer. “It’s a pivotal moment and I’m very excited.”
Already recycled, the first stage propellant returned to Vandenberg eight minutes after takeoff to fly again one day.
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