After the resounding success of the 15-year-long GRACE mission, NASA is getting ready for GRACE – the sequel. The U.S. space agency is once again teaming up with the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) to kick off the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, launching next month.
According to a news release issued today, GRACE-FO will continue to keep an eye on Earth’s water cycle by monitoring the monthly changes of mass distribution that occur in our planet’s atmosphere, oceans, land, and ice sheets. At the same time, the mission will be studying what goes on under the Earth’s crust all the way up from space.
To this effect, NASA and GFZ plan to launch yet another pair of twin satellites, which will orbit our planet at an initial altitude of about 305 miles (490 kilometers). The two GRACE-FO satellites will be positioned at a distance of roughly 137 miles (220 kilometers) from one another and act as a single instrument to take accurate readings of Earth’s gravity field.
In this way, the satellites will be able to detect the movement of massive amounts of water, ice, and solid crust on Earth by picking up on how this movement affects the shape of the planet’s gravity field.
Essentially, the GRACE-FO satellites will use the weight of water to measure its movement and provide a birds-eye view on the goings-on in the Earth’s water cycle by tracking changes in water mass. This applies not only to the planet’s oceans but also to the polar ice sheets and the deep water that flows under the crust.
“GRACE-FO provides a unique way to measure water in many of its phases, allowing us to manage water resources more effectively,” said GRACE-FO science lead Michael Watkins, who also runs NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The end goal of the NASA-GFZ joint mission is to uncover unique insights into Earth system processes and the planet’s changing climate. The GRACE-FO mission will be operational for a period of five years and provide crucial data records on long-term changes in water mass that are influenced by climate change.
To enhance the precision of the measurements taken by the two GRACE-FO satellites, NASA and GFZ are adding a new feature to the upcoming mission in the form of an experimental Laser Ranging Interferometer. This instrument is expected to increase the readings’ accuracy by a factor of 10 or more and “will be the first in-space demonstration of laser interferometry between satellites,” notes the news release.
The GRACE-FO mission has an estimated launch date set for May 19 and will take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. As the Inquisitr previously reported, the rocket’s payload will also include five Iridium NEXT communications satellites, which will be launched on a higher orbit once the GRACE-FO satellites are deployed.