The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite launched into space on the morning of Jan. 31 on a mission to explore the distribution of water around the globe.
The SMAP observatory was originally scheduled to launch on Jan. 29. However, high winds force mission controllers to postpone takeoff for a day, and a needed repair pushed back the launch another 24 hours.
Liftoff took place from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:22 a.m.
"We're in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now. Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn't be happier," Tim Dunn, launch manager for NASA, said about an hour after launch.
The observatory is designed to measure moisture levels in groundwater around the world, in an effort to better predict floods, droughts and other natural disasters.
One antenna attached to the vehicle is 20 feet in diameter, the largest ever flown by the space agency. The device will rotate, creating the most-detailed measurements ever made of moisture on our home planet.
"The launch of SMAP completes an ambitious 11-month period for NASA that has seen the launch of five new Earth-observing space missions to help us better understand our changing planet," Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said.
Ground moisture sensors on the surface of the Earth are not numerous enough to provide a detailed analysis of content around the world. By examining data from SMAP, researchers hope to learn more about water, energy and carbon cycles on Earth, in order to better understand the climate.
Reaching an altitude of 426 miles above the planet's surface, SMAP became the 20th Earth observatory presently in service, examining our home world. The vehicle will orbit around Earth once every 98 minutes, 30 seconds, passing from pole to pole, as the planet rotates beneath the craft.
"About 57 minutes after liftoff, SMAP separated from the rocket's second stage into an initial 411-by-425-mile (661-by-685-kilometer) orbit. After a series of activation procedures, the spacecraft established communications with ground controllers and deployed its solar array. Initial telemetry shows the spacecraft is in excellent health," Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported soon after liftoff.
NASA officials are now planning a three-year lifespan for the $916 million mission.
Readings from a radar and radiometer will be combined, in order to precisely measure the levels of moisture present in the top two inches of the Earth's surface. Measurements will be taken both day and night, under any cloud cover, even through moderate growth of vegetation.
Because plant growth is dependent, on part, on levels of soil moisture, the SMAP observatory could also assist researchers in creating more accurate predictions of crop yields.