The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite is set to launch on Saturday as the next generation of spacecraft to keep an eye on our planet’s sea levels.
The joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency will start from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on November 21 at 12:17 ET.
Once in orbit, the pickup truck satellite will track global sea levels for the next five and a half years from 830 miles above the earth̵
For 30 years, satellites have helped monitor Earth’s sea levels. This satellite is the latest in that series, but it will collect the most accurate data yet at global sea levels and how it shifts in response to climate change.
Sentinel-6 has a higher resolution for collecting measurements, which means it can track both large features such as the Gulf Stream, as well as smaller features such as shoreline variations.
The satellite collects data that can be used to improve weather forecasts, hurricane tracking and climate models, such as humidity and atmospheric temperature. Researchers can also use the data to predict areas where shorelines may shift.
This is a two-part mission, and the satellite has a twin, Sentinel-6B, that will launch in 2025. Together, the twin satellites will carry the tradition of continuously monitoring the rise in sea level to a fourth decade.
“This mission is a global partnership required to study our planet because it belongs to all of us,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told a news conference Friday.
“To understand what climate change means to humanity, science must take a long view. This mission is a follow-up to 30 years of uninterrupted measurements with spacecraft that have circulated the earth. We get another decade of critical measurements from this perspective. We do this together as an international community, and it makes us stronger. “
A legacy from studying our planet
The mission was renamed earlier this year to the late Michael Freilich, oceanographer and director of NASA’s Earth Science Division from 2006 to 2019. Freilich died in August. The satellite was named in his honor to commemorate Freilich’s contributions to earth science and satellite oceanography and to promote space – based ocean measurement.
During the press conference on Friday, Zurbuchen reminded everyone of Freilich’s words and perspective on the importance of studying Earth from space.
“Humanity, not an agency, not a country, not a continent, but … humanity has been monitoring the global sea level from space with exquisite accuracy for more than 28 years.”
Sentinel-6 follows in the footsteps of Jason-3, a satellite launched in 2016. It currently still provides observations of global ocean topography.
An overlap in satellites allows mission teams to ensure that they receive continuous data before the end of the previous mission.
After launch, Sentinel-6 flies 30 seconds behind Jason-3. The team will cross-calibrate the data from both satellites over the next year before Jason-3’s mission ends.
This long tradition of satellite surveillance satellites began with the original Jason series missions and its predecessor TOPEX / Poseidon, launched in 2001 and 1992 respectively.
It is part of Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth Observation Program. This program maintains accurate sea level data in more than 90% of Earth’s oceans. The data collected by this chain of satellites have contributed to climate studies, ocean meteorology and oceanography.
Eyes on the sea
The long-term uninterrupted monitoring of global sea levels is the key to understanding how our planet responds to global warming and climate change. And when global sea levels rise, according to climate experts, it is a clear indicator of global warming.
Understanding global sea levels can help scientists track ocean currents as they transfer heat across the planet. This ripple effect can affect our weather.
Coastlines are also changing in response to climate change-driven sea level rise. When the planet warms, the ocean absorbs heat trapped by greenhouse gases, causing some of the expansion behind the rise in sea level. Melting glaciers and ice sheets account for the majority of the shift.
The rise in sea level has risen over the last 25 years and will continue to do so in the future. It is an important factor to trace because coastal floods caused by storms can reshape populated areas.
Freilich recognized that the rising sea level on Earth would require the cooperation of people around the world to understand and resolve.
The agency set up the Sea Level Change Science Team in 2014 to unite people across NASA and from other institutions to study glaciers, ice decks, the ocean and land movement to get the best picture of the effects of rising sea levels.
“We are united in this great goal,” said Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer, NASA’s program director, in a statement. “Sea levels are affected by these various factors, which a discipline does not cover – so we have to get experts to approach it from all angles.”
But this satellite can also contribute to a greater understanding of how the Earth’s climate generally shifts from its global ocean all the way to the top of its atmosphere.