For the second time in a month, a SpaceX rocket successfully blasted off and bolstered a $364 million science satellite – tasked to monitor the pulse of our planet – from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sunday.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 boosted the Jason-3 satellite into orbit. The science satellite's mission is to continue a nearly quarter-century record of tracking global sea level rise, a vital indicator of global warming.
The launch is the second in less than a month as SpaceX made a historic moment on Dec. 21 by launching and landing the first stage of its modified Falcon 9 rocket.
The Dec. 21 landing was SpaceX's first successful touchdown on land. In contrast, Jason-3's landing had several problems, but was still a job well done for scientists.
What The Jason-3 Satellite Is Tasked To Do
Jason-3 is the fourth in a series of state-of-the-art satellites with radar altimeters that will accurately measure the distance of the ocean surface underneath. This will allow researchers to calculate ocean elevation, the velocity of currents, deep ocean temperatures, wind speed and wave height.
"The measurements from Jason-3 will advance our efforts to understand Earth as an integrated system by increasing our knowledge of sea level changes and the ocean's roles in climate," said John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for science at the NASA headquarters in Washington.
Laury Miller, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Jason-3 program scientist, said more than 90 percent of the heat being trapped in the Earth system because of the greenhouse effect is actually going to the ocean.
"This makes the ocean perhaps the biggest player in the climate change story. Jason allows us to get the big picture in terms of sea level change in the years to come," said Miller.
Jason-3 will also collect data to help weather scientists and forecasters improve modelling of extreme weather such as hurricanes or tropical storms.
Miller said extreme weather conditions such as flooding, heavy rainfall, tornadoes out of season, and droughts all seem like isolated events, but in actuality, many of them are connected. Some are linked to changes in the ocean, occurring half a world away, he said.
One example is the El Niño that is currently battering the United States, he added.
The Jason-3 Satellite's Landing
The Sunday landing was only the secondary objective, scientists said. The main goal of the Jason-3 mission was to lift off the science satellite into orbit.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Jason-3's descent into the landing barge – with the "Just Read the Instructions" sign plastered onto it – went smoothly. Unfortunately, a problem occurred.
Musk said it was definitely more difficult to land a rocket on a ship at sea. He said the landing was similar to that of an aircraft and land: there is a much lesser landing area which is translating and rotating at the same time.
That did not hinder the landing from being perfect, however.
"Touchdown speed was OK," tweeted Musk, but one of four landing legs did not lock in place. The rocket then tipped over after touchdown.
The Jason-3 is an international mission conducted by NASA, NOAA, the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, and the French space agency CNES.