NASA Launches Revolutionary Earth Science Satellite Measuring Soil Moisture Cycle

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, is seen after the mobile service tower was rolled back Friday, Jan. 30 at Space Launch Complex 2, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Story updated[/caption]

At dawn this morning (Jan. 31) NASA launched an advanced Earth science satellite aimed at making measurements of our planet’s surface soil moisture and freeze/thaw states from space that will revolutionize our understanding of the water, energy, and carbon cycles driving all life on Earth, aid weather forecasting and improve climate change models.

NASA’s new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory thundered off the pad at 6:22 a.m. PST (9:22 a.m. EST) Saturday atop a two stage United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The $916 million satellite successfully separated from the rocket’s second stage some 57 minutes after the flawless liftoff and was injected into an initial 411- by 425-mile (661- by 685-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then deployed its solar arrays and telemetry indicated it was in excellent health.

“We’re in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said.

“Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn’t be happier.”

SMAP separated from the second stage while pointed toward the sun as seen in the video below from a rocket mounted camera:

Video Caption: A camera on the second stage of the Delta II rocket captured this footage as the SMAP spacecraft pushed itself away from the rocket to complete the delivery of the Earth-observing spacecraft to its proper orbit following Jan. 31, 2015 liftoff. Credit: NASA TV/ULA

SMAP is NASA’s 1st Earth observing satellite designed to make high resolution global observations of Earth’s vital surface soil moisture content and freeze/thaw cycle just below your feet. It will aid global forecasting and have broad applications for science and society.

SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments will peer into the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of soil, through clouds and moderate vegetation cover, day and night, to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space, says NASA.

The blastoff of SMAP successfully concluded NASA’s ambitious plans to launch a record breaking total of five Earth science satellites in less than a year’s time.

“The launch of SMAP completes an ambitious 11-month period for NASA that has seen the launch of five new Earth-observing space missions to help us better understand our changing planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“Scientists and policymakers will use SMAP data to track water movement around our planet and make more informed decisions in critical areas like agriculture and water resources.”

Artist's rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SMAP is projected to last for at least a three year primary mission.

The prior NASA Earth science instrument launched was the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS) payload hauled to space by the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon on Jan. 10, 2015 and recently installed on the exterior of the ISS. Read my CATS installation story – here.

The three earlier NASA Earth science missions launched over the past year included ISS-RapidScat in September 2014, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, in February 2014, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

“Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, JPL and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the SMAP satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“It is our honor to launch this important Earth science mission to help scientists observe and predict natural hazards, and improve our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles.”

SMAP will provide high-resolution, space-based measurements of soil moisture and its state — frozen or thawed — a new capability that will allow scientists to better predict natural hazards of extreme weather, climate change, floods and droughts, and help reduce uncertainties in our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles, according to a NASA description.

The mission will map the entire globe every two to three days for at least three years and provide the most accurate and highest-resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained. The spacecraft’s final circular polar orbit will be 426 miles (685 kilometers), at an inclination of 98.1 degrees. The spacecraft will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes and repeat the same ground track every eight days.

“All subsystems are being powered on and checked out as planned,” Kent Kellogg, the SMAP project manager, during a post-launch press conference.

“Communications, guidance and control, computers and power are all operating nominally.”

The observatory is in excellent health. Its instruments will be turned on in 11 days.

Today’s blastoff of SMAP marks ULA’s second successful launch this month as well as the second of 13 planned for 2015. ULA’s first launch of 2015 was MUOS-3 from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 20.

ULA’s next launch involves NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection. It is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Next Generation NASA/JAXA Global Weather Research Satellite thunders aloft from Japanese Spaceport

GPM Launch Seen From the Tanegashima Space Center
A Japanese H-IIA rocket with the NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory onboard, is seen launching from the Tanegashima Space Center on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 (Japan Time), in Tanegashima, Japan; Thursday, Feb. 27, EST. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls[/caption]

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND – A powerful, next generation weather observatory aimed at gathering unprecedented 3-D measurements of global rain and snowfall rates – and jointly developed by the US and Japan – thundered to orbit today (Feb. 27 EST, Feb. 28 JST) ) during a spectacular night time blastoff from a Japanese space port.

The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory was launched precisely on time at 1:37 p.m. EST, 1837 GMT, Thursday, Feb. 27 (3:37 a.m. JST Friday, Feb. 28) atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima Island off southern Japan.

Viewers could watch the spectacular liftoff live on NASA TV – which was streamed here at Universe Today.

“GPM’s precipitation measurements will look like a CAT scan,” Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum, GPM research scientist, told me during a prelaunch interview with the GPM satellite in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“The radar can scan through clouds to create a three dimensional view of a clouds structure and evolution.”

GPM lifts off on Feb. 27, EST (Feb. 28 JST) to begin its Earth-observing mission.  Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
GPM lifts off on Feb. 27, EST (Feb. 28, JST) to begin its Earth-observing mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

GPM is the lead observatory of a constellation of nine highly advanced Earth orbiting weather research satellites contributed by the US, Japan, Europe and India.

Indeed GPM will be the first satellite to measure light rainfall and snow, in addition to heavy tropical rainfall.

It will collect a treasure trove of data enabling the most comprehensive measurements ever of global precipitation every three hours – and across a wide swath of the planet where virtually all of humanity lives from 65 N to 65 S latitudes.

GPM orbits at an altitude of 253 miles (407 kilometers) above Earth – quite similar to the International Space Station (ISS).

The global precipitation data will be made freely available to climate researchers and weather forecasters worldwide in near real time – something long awaited and not possible until now.

Water and the associated water and energy cycles are the basis of all life on Earth.

Yet scientists lack a clear and comprehensive understanding of key rain and snow fall amounts on most of the globe – which is at the heart of humanity’s existence and future well being on the home planet.

Having an accurate catalog of the water and energy cycles will direct benefit society and impact people’s lives on a daily basis with improved weather forecasts, more advanced warnings of extreme weather conditions, aid farmers, help identify and determine the effects of global climate change.

Researchers will use the GPM measurements to study climate change, freshwater resources, floods and droughts, and hurricane formation and tracking.

“With this launch, we have taken another giant leap in providing the world with an unprecedented picture of our planet’s rain and snow,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a NASA statement.

gpm-decal-smallGPM will help us better understand our ever-changing climate, improve forecasts of extreme weather events like floods, and assist decision makers around the world to better manage water resources.”

“The GPM spacecraft has been under development for a dozen years,” said GPM Project Manager Art Azarbarzin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in a prelaunch interview with Universe Today conducted inside the clean room with GPM before it’s shipment to Japan.

NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today.  GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today. GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The GPM satellite was built in house by the dedicated team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland,” Azarbarzin told me.

“It’s the largest satellite ever built at Goddard.”

Following the flawless blastoff, the nearly four ton GPM spacecraft separated from the Japanese rocket some 16 minutes later at an altitude of 247 miles (398 kilometers).

10 minutes later both of the spacecrafts life giving solar arrays deployed as planned.

Major components of the GPM Core Observatory labeled, including the GMI, DPR, HGAS, solar panels, and more. Credit: NASA Goddard
Major components of the GPM Core Observatory labeled, including the GMI, DPR, HGAS, solar panels, and more. Credit: NASA Goddard

“It is incredibly exciting to see this spacecraft launch,” said Azarbarzin, in a NASA statement. He witnessed the launch in Japan.

“This is the moment that the GPM Team has been working toward since 2006.”

“The GPM Core Observatory is the product of a dedicated team at Goddard, JAXA and others worldwide.”

“Soon, as GPM begins to collect precipitation observations, we’ll see these instruments at work providing real-time information for the scientists about the intensification of storms, rainfall in remote areas and so much more.”

The $933 Million observatory is a joint venture between the US and Japanese space agencies, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The 3850 kilogram GPM satellite is equipped with two instruments – an advanced, higher resolution dual -frequency precipitation (DPR) radar instrument (Ku and Ka band) built by JAXA in Japan and the GPM microwave imager (GMI) built by Ball Aerospace in the US.

The GPM observatory will replace the aging NASA/JAXA Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite launched back in 1997 and also jointly developed by NASA and JAXA.

“GPM is the direct follow-up to the currently orbiting TRMM satellite,” Azarbarzin explained to me.

“TRMM is reaching the end of its usable lifetime. After GPM launches we hope it has some overlap with observations from TRMM.”

GPM is vital to continuing the TRMM measurements. It will help provide improved forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms like Hurricane Sandy and Super Typhoon Haiyan.

“TRMM was only designed to last three years but is still operating today. We hope GPM has a similar long life,” said Azarbarzin.

NASA astronaut Paul Richards discusses GPM at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Fe. 27, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA astronaut Paul Richards (STS-102) discusses GPM at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Feb. 27, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing GPM reports and on-site coverage at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

And watch for Ken’s continuing planetary and human spaceflight news about Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars, Orion and more.

Ken Kremer

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory and Partner Satellites. Credit: NASA
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory and Partner Satellites. GPM launched on Feb. 27 from Japan. Credit: NASA
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today:   Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today: Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com