Sat. Dec 5th, 2020

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SpaceX launches NASA’s Sentinel-6 satellite to monitor rising sea levels

SpaceX launched NASA’s Sentinel 6-Michael Freilich oceanography satellite from Vandenberg Air Force base in California on Saturday.

A week after it sent four astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time, SpaceX launched the first of two satellites Saturday that will monitor sea level rise over the next decade.

NASA’s Sentinel 6-Michael Freilich oceanography satellite – a joint venture with the European Space Agency – began a five-and-a-half-year mission to collect “the most accurate data yet on global sea level and how our oceans are rising in response to climate change,” according to NASA.

The mission also will collect information on atmospheric temperature and humidity to improve weather forecasts and climate models.

The satellite headed into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force base at 12:17 p.m. ET Saturday. The satellite is named in honor of the late director of NASA’s Earth science division. It’s the first West Coast launch in a year a half.

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A second satellite is expected to launch in the coming years. Once in orbit, each satellite will collect sea level measurements “down to the centimeter for 90% of the world’s oceans,” according to NASA.

The most recent effort to monitor sea level rise follows the 2016 launch of the U.S.-European satellite, Jason-3, which is currently providing observations of the topography of the ocean, according to NASA.

The Jason series of satellites have been monitoring global sea levels since 2001, according to NASA. While they have been able to track climate phenomena like El Niño and La Niña, the satellites have been unable to measure smaller sea level variations, NASA said. The new satellites can collect measurements at higher resolution. 

Sea level rise has accelerated over the last 25 years, and scientists expect it to speed up even more in the years to come, according to NASA. That rise will change coastlines and how flooding and storms will affect cities.

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Scientists have traditionally measured sea level using tide gages along the coast, NASA project scientist Josh Willis said in a video.

“Those are great records. Some of them go back more than a hundred years, so they give us a historical perspective. But they’re only at those single points, and the oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface,” he said. “So if you want to see the whole thing, you have to do it from the bird’s eye view.”

The Sentinel 6-Michael Freilich – nearly 17 feet long and 2,628 pounds – uses its positioning systems to measure sea level, Willis said.

“This thing has a radar that tells us how far away the satellite is from the ocean’s surface, so it bounces off and measures the return time,” he said. “And then it also has a bunch of positioning systems. So if you know where the satellite is, and you know how far away it is from the water, then you can use both of those pieces of information to tell you how tall the ocean is.”

The satellite will orbit 830 miles above Earth, and make approximately 13 orbits a day, moving at 4.5 miles per second, according to NASA.

Contributing: Rachael Joy, Florida Today

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