SpaceX launched an environmental research satellite for NASA early Thursday, a nearly $1 billion spacecraft that has survived multiple cancellation threats and is now poised to shed new light on climate change and the complex interplay of heat-trapping carbon, aerosols and marine life on a global scale.
The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem mission – PACE – “will dramatically advance our understanding of the relationship between aerosols and clouds, and the global energy balance,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Sciences Division. “This is one of the biggest sources of uncertainty in our ability to model the climate.”
She said PACE “is going to teach us about the oceans in the same way that Webb (the James Webb Space Telescope) teaches us about the cosmos.” And that includes “an enormous amount about ocean biology.”
“This is really going to be about understanding phytoplankton, these very small (organisms) that live in the ocean, that underlie life in our oceans in general.”
Oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, she added, “and yet the oceans are one of the least well-understood parts of the Earth system. PACE will profoundly improve our understanding of how the oceans work and what life is like in the oceans. related to life on land.”
Delayed two days due to high winds at the launch site, the mission began at 1:33 a.m. EST on Thursday, when the nine first stage engines powering a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and lit up the deep night sky over Cape Canaveral illuminated.
In a spectacular show, the Falcon 9 flew off on a southerly trajectory over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the east coast of Florida, as it climbed to a 420-mile orbit around the Earth’s poles.
Polar orbits allow Earth observation satellites, weather stations and exploration platforms to view the entire planet as it rotates below. Tuesday’s launch was the U.S. government’s first Arctic launch from the East Coast since 1960, when a rocket went wrong and Cold War debris fell on Cuba and killed a cow.
Since then, NASA and the Pentagon have launched polar payloads from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
But SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 to polar orbit from Florida in August 2020 and has since launched multiple payloads on such southern trajectories. NASA agreed with PACE that government safety requirements had been met.
Aside from the trajectories and launch locations, the PACE mission had a difficult path to the launch pad. The Trump administration has made multiple attempts to cancel the project, in part to direct more resources to NASA’s accelerated moon program. But Congress didn’t agree, and money was added to the agency’s budget each time.
“I’m not going to get into the policy or politics, but it’s been a really remarkable journey,” said Jeremy Werdell, a PACE project scientist. He thanked the support of the scientific community, NASA and the public for keeping the program on track and boosting morale.
The PACE satellite, built at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is equipped with three instruments: a hyperspectral color camera and two light-analyzing polarimeters, one of which provides wide-angle images of polarized light reflected from land, sea and other areas . the atmosphere below and the other offers a narrow view.
“It’s a three-instrument payload and honestly the technology just works the way your eyes do,” Werdell said. “We are looking for interactions of sunlight – photons, quanta – with the atmosphere, the ocean and the land. Whatever those photons hit, they are absorbed or scattered, and then the instrument sees what they are.”
Despite its name, PACE “is not an ocean mission. It’s not an atmospheric mission. It’s not a land mission. It’s a make-or-break mission,” Werdell said.
“And that’s so incredibly important, because you can’t understand one without understanding the other. … This is a mission where we don’t know what we’re going to learn about. And that’s so incredibly exciting.”
PACE is expected to produce highly accurate data, allowing researchers to refine computer models, providing policymakers with more accurate information about ongoing trends and long-term threats. It will also enable real-time measurements of the movement of aerosols through the atmosphere, plankton health and carbon transport.
“Understanding how ocean life interacts with the atmosphere and global climate is one of the secrets of the universe here at home,” said NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free.
“Aerosols that cycle through the ocean and atmosphere are a factor in how clouds form and how weather systems behave. But how exactly that process works is a scientific mystery. Unraveling it is a major goal of the PACE mission.”
Kate Calvin, NASA’s chief scientist and senior climate advisor, said the past decade has been the warmest on record. This reflects a general warming trend that is largely caused by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
“When carbon dioxide is released, some of it is absorbed by the land, some of it is absorbed by the ocean, and some of it stays in the atmosphere and traps heat,” she said. “Greenhouse gases are not the only factors that influence temperature, there are also small particles called aerosols that reflect or absorb sunlight and also influence the formation of clouds.
“PACE will provide more information about oceans and the atmosphere, including new ways to study how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon. It will also give us information about aerosols, information that will help us understand the long-term climate.”
The PACE satellite, Falcon 9 rocket and mission operations cost NASA $948 million. After extensive testing and instrument calibration, scientific observations are expected to begin in about two months.
Although the design life calls for a three-year mission, project officials are optimistic that the spacecraft will ultimately function for a decade or more.
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