Launching a new satellite that scans most of the Earth’s water | CNN

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The first mission to survey nearly all of the water on Earth’s surface has been launched.

The International Surface Waters and Oceans Mission, known as SWOT, lifted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 6:46 a.m. ET Friday. The first stage of the rocket successfully landed on Earth at 6:54 a.m. ET.

Live coverage on NASA’s website began at 6 a.m. ET.

The mission, a joint effort between NASA and the French space agency CNES, will survey water on more than 90% of the world’s surface and measure the height of water in bodies of fresh water as well as the oceans. The two agencies have collaborated for decades to monitor Earth’s oceans — and SWOT is the next step in their partnership.

Insights from SWOT measurements will show how oceans affect climate change as well as how global warming affects lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Satellite data can also help communities better prepare for floods and other water-related disasters, which are increasing due to the climate crisis.

The water tracking satellite was packed and ready for the rocket on Dec. 8.

While water is essential to the survival of life on Earth, it also shapes our weather and climate because it stores and transports carbon and heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions. Surveying this resource can help scientists understand the global water budget – assessing the main sources, how those sources are changing and the impacts they will have on different environments.

The main question that scientists are asking is about the heat exchange between the Earth’s atmosphere and the global ocean, and how it can accelerate global warming.

“We’ll be able to see things we haven’t been able to see before,” said Benjamin Hamlington, a research scientist with the Sea Level and Ice Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We’ll be able to track the movement of water around the Earth between the ocean and the land, and we’ll be able to make some of these connections and really understand where the water is at any given time. That’s really critical because we know with climate change that the water cycle is accelerating. What this means is that some Some of the sites have too much water, and some of them don’t have enough.”

The satellite instruments will collect detailed data on both freshwater and ocean features at high resolution.

After years of development, the SWOT Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn, is now ready to fly. The device will be able to detect features up to 10 times smaller than those captured by satellites at sea level.

These illustrations show the SWOT satellite with both antennas of the Ka-band Radar Interferometer (KaRIn) instrument extended.

For example, current ground-based and satellite observations collect data on a few thousand of the world’s largest lakes, while SWOT will increase that number to more than a million lakes.

Researchers who study bodies of water have had to rely on instruments that take measurements in specific places, such as river or ocean gauges. Likewise, previous satellites in space have collected more limited data that cannot reach the true depths of Earth’s water bodies. One example of an obstacle to collecting accurate readings is that steep rivers do not appear wider or narrower even if more water is flowing through them.

But the KaRIn radar instrument can collect measurements through cloud cover and the darkness of the night. The two antennas are placed at either end of a 33-foot (10-meter) arm on the satellite. These antennas send radar pulses to the surface of the water and receive the signals back.

“For fresh water, this would be a quantum leap in terms of our knowledge,” Daniel Esteban-Fernandez, KaRIn instrument manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

The spacecraft will view and capture nearly all rivers over 330 feet (100 meters) wide in 3D for the first time, as well as measure ocean features less than 60 miles (100 kilometers) wide.

The data from the SWOT will complement the USGS-developed system for measuring the rise and flow of previously unmonitored Alaskan rivers.  The Landsat satellite captured this image of the Yukon River near the village of Stevens, Alaska.

“SWOT will really allow us to understand how the volume of water is changing in our rivers and lakes all over the world,” said Tamlin Pavelsky, NASA’s Freshwater SWOT Science Lead, based at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It will be a real game changer.”

The data from SWOT can help researchers fill knowledge gaps as they seek to understand the cascading effects of the climate crisis, such as how sea level changes along coasts and which areas may be more vulnerable to flooding, to better predict future rises in water levels.

The climate crisis is also fueling extreme weather patterns, including droughts and heavy rains. The satellites can monitor both and provide essential information to disaster preparedness and water management agencies.

One place in particular that might benefit from a SWOT monitor is Alaska. Although the state sits on the edge of the Arctic Circle, it also holds about 40% of the surface water resources in the United States, including more than 12,000 rivers and hundreds of thousands of lakes. The area’s size and rugged terrain, as well as its general inaccessibility, hampered Alaskan water measurements.

“SWOT will allow us to see what’s happening in Alaska hydrologically in ways we haven’t done before,” said Pavelski.

“This is important, because Alaska, being in the Arctic, is also the place in the United States that is experiencing the greatest climate change right now. If you want to know why that matters, think about how many resources we get from Alaska.”

The reach of the SWOT mission means that the satellite will be able to regularly monitor other regions of the world where it was previously difficult to estimate water resources.

“It will be transformative in our ability to provide information that will ultimately improve the daily lives and livelihoods of nearly everyone here on Earth,” said Hamlington.

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