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NASA to launch first global water survey with US-French satellite

NASA is set to launch a SpaceX rocket from California carrying a US-French satellite designed to conduct the first global survey of Earth’s surface waters, 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 under a NASA contract, was set for blast-off on Friday from the Vandenberg US Space Force Base, about 275 km northwest of Los Angeles.

Weather forecasts have predicted favourable conditions for liftoff, which a NASA launch services team is managing. 

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SWOT team

The rocket’s payload, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite, or SWOT, incorporates advanced microwave radar technology to collect high-definition measurements of oceans, lakes, reservoirs and rivers over 90 percent of the globe.

The data, compiled from radar sweeps of the planet at least twice every 21 days, will be used to enhance ocean-circulation models, bolster weather and climate forecasts and aid in managing scarce 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 the French space agency CNES.

Nearly 20 years in development by the US space agency with contributions from its 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.

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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 minimise the climate crisis.

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

Understanding the mechanism by which that happens will help answer a pivotal question: What is the tipping point at which oceans start releasing, rather than absorbing, large amounts of heat back into the atmosphere, thus intensifying global warming?

SWOT’s main radar instrument operates at the so-called Ka-band frequency of the microwave spectrum, allowing its scans to penetrate cloud cover and darkness over vast swaths of Earth’s surface.

This enables scientists to accurately map observations in two dimensions regardless of weather or time of day, and to cover large geographic areas more quickly than before.

If all goes as planned, the SWOT satellite will begin producing research data within several months.

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