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Today’s SpaceX launch will help NASA monitor climate change

26 May 2018
Today’s SpaceX launch will help NASA monitor climate change

And while the rocket was blameless in the loss of ZUMA, the previously flown first stage will not make another flight.

Because ride-sharing is caring, SpaceX will send the next batch of Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit along with a pair of NASA gravity monitoring orbiters, GRACE-FO. (That mission was lost, but SpaceX was not to blame for the mishap.) Although the rocket stuck a flawless landing on its last mission, SpaceX does not plan to attempt a landing for this flight.

This first-stage booster has flown once before, a little more than four months ago when it launched the Zuma mission for the USA government-a satellite or spacecraft that was apparently lost in space after it failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. An additional six spares will remain on the ground until needed. "We await our first communication from #GRACEFO via our communications station at McMurdo, Antarctica", NASA tweeted after launch.

The GPS III satellites are expected to provide improved security against cyberthreats, as well as more accuracy for navigation. Orbital ATK integrated the satellites at its Gilbert, Arizona, factory.

Watch the live launch of GRACE-FO right here!

Scientists are keen to keep collecting this data even after the original 15 years of GRACE. The GRACE-FO satellites will trail each other in flawless synchronization for roughly 137 miles (220 kilometers).

When water or ice fills an area - such as a coastline or river basin - the liquid slightly increases that area's mass. Objects with more mass have a stronger gravitational pull, so measuring these variations in gravity gives NASA data on phenomena like sea-level rise, glacial retreat, drought, and changes in the size of underground aquifers. So, to obtain information about the distribution of mass below, the GRACE-FO satellites need not look down; instead, they'll only "look" at each other and measure their separation by constantly sending microwave signals back and forth. GRACE Follow-On will spend the next five years mapping Earth's gravity to study the effects of climate change around the world.

GRACE-FO operates by actually using the weight of water to measure movement. The second stage rocket will then shut down and coast until a little under an hour after liftoff, when the engine will be restarted for a quick burn prior to the five NEXT communications satellites being ejected, as Iridium continues upgrading its constellation. "That is about one-tenth of a human hair over the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego", Frank Flechtner, GRACE-FO's project manager at GFZ in Potsdam, Germany, said at the news conference.