On Friday, a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket launched NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The $1.2-billion SWOT satellite is expected to transform research into the global water cycle and give scientists an unprecedented view of Earth’s surface water except for the poles. The mission will study the fine details of the ocean’s surface topography, and measure how water bodies change over time. In collaboration with French, Canadian, and United Kingdom space agencies, SWOT has been designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
“Once in orbit, SWOT will measure the height of water in freshwater bodies and the ocean on more than 90% of Earth’s surface,” NASA officials said in a statement(opens in new tab).
SWOT has been in development for over 20 years. It will survey using cloud-penetrating radar in order to create high-resolution maps of oceans, rivers, reservoirs, and lakes. The Ka-band frequency of the microwave spectrum will allow scanning regardless of cloud cover or darkness and thus will enable 2D dimensions irrespective of weather or time of day. The satellite will be able to see lakes larger than 15 acres and rivers wider than 330 feet across. The mission will also help enhance ocean circulation models, bolster weather and climate forecasts, and contribute to managing scarce freshwater supplies in drought-stricken regions.
“The key advance for SWOT is that we’ll be able to simultaneously measure the extent and height of water. Adding that new dimension is critical because it allows us to think about things in terms of changes in volume over time,” said Tamlin Pavelsky, a University of North Carolina researcher and the SWOT team’s hydrology science lead, at a press conference earlier this week.
NASA says the satellite will gather data over several months. The data will be compiled from sweeps that’ll be done twice every 21 days. Scientists believe SWOT could turn out to be a major improvement over measurements by previous satellites. The data will be in the coming future amid the accelerating rate of rise in sea level.