SpaceX rocket blasts UK-backed 'sea cartographer' satellite into orbit

A Falcon 9 rocket roars to life

With liftoff set for today at 17:17 GMT (18:17 CET, 09:17 PST), the Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite is poised for liftoff - atop a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, US. The twin satellites will be contributing to a almost 30-year continuous data record - following in the footsteps of three previous missions - TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1, Ocean Surface Topography/Jason-2, and Jason-3.

Global sea level is rising approximately 0.13 inches (3.3 millimeters) a year.

Sentinel-6 has higher metering accuracy, which means it can track both large features, such as the Gulf Stream, as well as smaller features like shoreline differences.

The data that it collects on sea level variations near coastlines will provide information to support coastal management and with planning for floods, while its atmospheric measurements will enhance weather and hurricane forecasts.

In addition to helping scientists keep long-term records of sea-level rise, Sentinel-6 data will also help scientists more accurately model and predict weather patterns. The $97 million Jason-6A will be joined by its twin, Jason-6B in 2025. This is the first global satellite mission to study the Earth that is named after an American.

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Almost 800 million people live within five metres of sea level, and even an increase in sea level of a few centimetres can translate into vastly more damage from high tides and storm surges.

The satellite, which is roughly the size of a small pickup truck and weighs just over 2,600 pounds, was named after the late director of NASA's Earth Science Division, Dr. Michael Freilich, who died of pancreatic cancer on August 5.

"This mission is a global partnership that is needed to study our planet because it is ours", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference on Friday.

"Extreme sea level events that are historically rare - once per century in the recent past - are projected to occur frequently, at least once per year, at many locations by 2050", especially in the tropics, the United Nations climate science advisory panel, the IPCC, concluded in a major report last year. Melting glaciers and ice sheets account for the majority of the transformation. This is the first SpaceX launch from Vandenberg since June of past year, though it has flown plenty of missions from both Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"What we expect to see, the new science coming out of Sentinel-6: that it would open up new frequencies and give us a fuller picture of what we know about the oceans", NASA program scientist Nadya Vinogradova-Shiffer said in a video posted on NASA's Twitter account. "Sea level is impacted by these different factors that one discipline doesn't cover - so we've got to bring in experts to approach it from all angles". That energy is transferred into Earth's atmosphere only later.

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