SpaceX Teams With NASA For Massive Water Surveying Mission

SpaceX seems to be moving on nicely after the debacle of September’s Falcon 9 rocket explosion. The Verge reported earlier this week that SpaceX just won a new contract from NASA, with the spaceflight company set to launch a water surveying satellite known as the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) vehicle.

According to The Verge, the SWOT satellite’s main goal is to provide the “first-ever global survey of Earth’s surface water” as it analyzes our planet’s oceans to come up with this data. It is tentatively scheduled to launch sometime in April 2021, riding on a Falcon 9 rocket and blasting off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

In a prepared statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell expressed her thanks for NASA’s support and her high hopes that SWOT will live up to its expectations.

“We’re excited to carry this critical science payload into orbit for NASA, the nation, and the international community. We appreciate NASA’s partnership and confidence in SpaceX as a launch provider.”

Prior to the new announcement, SpaceX had worked with NASA on another important science mission, having launched the Jason-3 ocean monitoring satellite in January. It is also scheduled to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2017, as it teams up with NASA in the search for smaller planets beyond our solar system that orbit bright stars.

According to the Los Angeles Daily News, SWOT will orbit at an altitude of approximately 532 to 553 miles and will cover “at least 90 percent” of planet Earth, monitoring various oceans, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs “at least twice every 21 days.” The data it gathers will assist in the management of the world’s freshwater reserves and facilitate more accurate climate prediction and ocean circulation models. The report also noted that the project’s data would also help in the management of California’s ongoing drought.

“California is one of the places we’re trying to provide data for,” said SWOT project manager Parag Vaze. “This will complement information that is already available from gauges and snowpacks. It will help improve our modeling techniques for forecasting, and that information will be available to water managers for how water supplies could be used on a year-to-year basis.”

Vaze added that the SpaceX/NASA water surveying mission hopes to understand the nuances of freshwater behavior in the light of how climate change may lead algal blooms to deprive water of much-needed oxygen. He added that the length of the mission is currently a moving target, even if it’s pegged to last about three years.

“We have limited understanding of how water distributes over large masses of land and flows back into the ocean. This is a three-year mission, but we expect it will go longer than that.”

NASA is said to be investing about $112 million to launch SWOT, with the costs covering the launch service itself, payload integration, spacecraft processing, and other key elements. According to The Verge, that’s substantially expensive, as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets cost $62 million and up. It also bears mentioning that the Jason-3 satellite carried a value of $82 million, while TESS’ launch expenses are slightly more expensive, at $87 million.

[Image by Bill Ingalls/Getty Images]

Interestingly, The Verge quoted NASA, which claims the $112 million doesn’t merely include the cost of launching the Falcon 9 that SWOT will ride on, but it includes the broader costs of launching the satellite. Some of that money will go to SpaceX, while the remainder will go to various unnamed companies tasked with offering “additional support” to allow SWOT to get a proper launch. NASA, however, chose to play its cards close to its chest when pressed further about the question of “additional support” and how much each of the other companies will contribute to the launch.

“The specific launch service price is considered competition and procurement sensitive information,” said NASA spokeswoman Cheryl Warner in a quick statement, emphasizing the confidentiality of how much money SpaceX and other firms are bringing in to help NASA launch the SWOT mission.

[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

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