SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted into space at 3:47 p.m. EDT (12:47 p.m. PDT, 19:47 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying a seven-satellite payload that will soon commence their respective scientific missions.
The rocket’s precious cargo included both NASA’s twin GRACE-FO satellites, which will be spending the next five years monitoring Earth’s gravity to track down the movement of water above and under the planet’s crust and the five Iridium NEXT communication satellites.
According to the Earth Observation Portal, these five spacecraft will join the 66-satellite constellation that Iridium already operates at low-Earth orbit and scope out our planet’s surface and atmosphere.
The five Iridium NEXT satellites are tasked with “providing coverage over 100 percent of the earth’s surface, including across oceans, airways, and polar regions,” states the company’s website.
Meanwhile, NASA’s twin satellites have their own important job to do. Yesterday’s launch will enable the space agency to continue the legacy of its previous GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission, conducted in partnership with the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).
As the Inquisitr reported last week, the 15-year-long GRACE mission surveyed our planet’s water cycle and yielded important data on the changes in the global freshwater supply. In view of the mission’s success, NASA and GFZ decided to extend the survey with a follow-up mission, thereby launching a second pair of satellites.
Initially slated for May 19, the launch of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO for short, was postponed for three days due to an issue with the Iridium NEXT satellites that shared a ride on the same SpaceX spacecraft.
Although the nature of the problem remained undisclosed, it seems to have been diligently fixed, as the launch of the Falcon 9 proceeded without incident. In case you missed yesterday’s live stream, you can watch the takeoff of the 70-meter rocket in the video below.
Soon after liftoff, NASA received confirmation that the GRACE-FO satellites are doing well, as shown by the radio signals beamed back by the twin spacecraft.
“The GRACE-FO satellites are at an altitude of about 305 miles (490 kilometers), traveling about 16,800 mph (7.5 kilometers per second). They are in a near-polar orbit, circling Earth once every 90 minutes,” NASA officials noted in the post-launch news release.
Over the next few days, the Earth-observing satellites will be positioning themselves at a distance of 137 miles (220 kilometers) from one another in order to initiate an “in-orbit checkout phase,” that will last for 85 days, NASA announced.
After calibrations and alignment procedures, the GRACE-FO satellites “will begin gathering and processing science data.” The space agency estimates that the first slew of data from the GRACE-FO mission will be released toward the end of the year.
GRACE-FO is different from most Earth-observing satellite missions. Except for its atmospheric limb sounder GPS measurements, which will provide data to aid weather forecasting, it does not carry a suite of independent science instruments that point down at Earth’s surface. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/oCuJBFmDSE— NASA Earth (@NASAEarth) May 22, 2018
“GRACE-FO will provide unique insights into how our complex planet operates,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in the news release.
As he explained, the twin satellites will be taking on a much larger role in addition to keeping tabs on the planet’s water cycle.
“GRACE-FO data will be used throughout the world to improve people’s lives – from better predictions of drought impacts to higher quality information on use and management of water from underground aquifers.”
According to Engadget, there’s a good chance that the twin GRACE-FO satellites will be orbiting Earth for a lot longer than just five years. The news outlet pointed out that the mission’s predecessor, launched in 2002, was also originally scheduled for a five-year run but ended up remaining operational until last year.