lift off

Watch the largest Earth-observing satellite ever launch into space

Sentinel-6 is looking out for below.

NASA/SpaceX

On Saturday, the journey of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite began.

The largest Earth-observing satellite took off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 12:17 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

In just a few months, the satellite will begin collecting data on rising sea levels here on Earth, offering scientists a bird's eye view of one of the hardest to measure affects of climate change.

After it launched into orbit, the satellite separated from the rocket and spread its solar arrays in a truly stunning display.

See the video of the launch here:

Once in the air, Sentinel-6 sent a signal to ground control confirming the spacecraft is in good health and ready to start a series of check-ups and last-minute calibrations. After these are completed, the spacecraft will begin its true mission.

Sentinel-6 is a joint venture by NASA and the European Space Agency, European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A disturbing trend — The mission's main objective is to collect data on global sea levels and chart climate change's effects on the Earth's oceans. The mission will run for a period of five and a half years.

As global temperatures rise, melting glaciers and ice sheets have combined with the thermal expansion of seawater to increase sea levels at an alarming rate. Since 1880, global mean sea level has risen about 8–9 inches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The Earth is changing, and this satellite will help deepen our understanding of how," Karen St. Germain, director of NASA's Earth Science Division, said in a statement.

"The changing Earth processes are affecting sea level globally, but the impact on local communities varies widely. International collaboration is critical to both understanding these changes and informing coastal communities around the world."

Sentinel-6 builds on the legacy of ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-3 mission. First launched in 2014, it remains the most ambitious Earth observation program to date.

Space agencies have played a crucial role in documenting the effects of changing global temperatures on our planet for years. Sentinel-6 brings an unprecedented level of precision to this effort.

Sentinel-6 will transform our understanding of Earth's oceans.NASA/JPL-CalTech

A new era — The Copernicus Sentinel-6 mission includes two identical satellites, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich and Sentinel-6B, which will launch five years apart and supply scientists with data until at least the year 2030.

Unlike previous Earth-observation missions, the Sentinel-6 observatory will collect measurements at a much higher resolution and be able to trace smaller sea-level variations near coastlines.

The way it does this is through a radar altimeter instrument, which calculates the distance between the satellite and Earth by measuring the time it takes for a transmitted radar pulse to reflect Earth’s surface. The returned echo pulse from the sea surface generates a waveform that reveals the height of the sea's surface and the waves, as well as the surface wind speed from the roughness of the ocean, in real time.

All of these measures support ocean forecasting — crucial to sustainable ocean-resource management, coastal management, and environmental protection, as well as the fishing industry.

"The data from this satellite, which is so critical for climate monitoring and weather forecasting, will be of unprecedented accuracy," Alain Ratier, director-general for the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, said in a statement.

"These data, which can only be obtained by measurements from space, will bring a wide range of benefits to people around the globe, from safer ocean travel to more precise prediction of hurricane paths, from greater understanding of sea level rise to more accurate seasonal weather forecasts, and so much more."

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