NASA set to conduct first global water survey from space

December 17, 2022 08:50 pm | Updated 08:50 pm IST

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. | Photo Credit: AFP

A NASA-led international satellite was launched from Southern California, on a major Earth science project to conduct a comprehensive survey of the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers for the first time.

Dubbed as SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography, the advanced radar satellite is designed to give an unprecedented view of the life-giving fluid covering 70% of the planet, shedding new light on the mechanics and consequences of climate change.

A Falcon 9 rocket, owned and operated by billionaire Elon Musk’s commercial launch company SpaceX, was set to liftoff from the Vandenberg U.S. Space Force Base, about 170 miles (275 km) northwest of Los Angeles, to carry SWOT into orbit.

If all goes as planned, the SUV-sized satellite will produce research data within several months.

Nearly 20 years in development, the SWOT incorporates advanced microwave radar technology that scientists say will collect height-surface measurements of oceans, lakes, reservoirs and rivers in high-definition detail over 90% of the globe.

Enhanced models

The data, compiled from radar sweeps of the planet at least twice every 21 days, will enhance ocean-circulation models, bolster weather and climate forecasts and aid in managing scarce freshwater supplies in drought-stricken regions, according to researchers.

“It’s really the first mission to observe nearly all water on the planet’s surface,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientist Ben Hamlington. 

One major thrust of the mission is to explore how oceans absorb atmospheric heat and carbon dioxide in a natural process that moderates global temperatures and climate change.

Better results

Scanning the seas from orbit, the SWOT was designed to precisely measure fine differences in surface elevations around smaller currents and eddies, where much the oceans’ drawdown of heat and carbon is believed to occur. The SWOT can do so with 10 times greater resolution than existing technologies, according to JPL.

The SWOT’s ability to discern smaller surface features will help study the impact of rising ocean levels on coastlines. More precise data along tidal zones would help predict how far storm-surge flooding may penetrate inland. 

Freshwater bodies are another key focus of the SWOT, equipped to observe the entire length of nearly all rivers wider than 330 feet and more than 1 million lakes and reservoirs larger than 15 acres. 

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