NASA wants SpaceX to help it survey the Earth's water surface

LightSail
Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society
SpaceX has won another mission — this time, to survey the world’s oceans. NASA announced last week that it had tapped SpaceX to launch a satellite that would “make the first-ever global survey of Earth’s surface water.” It is by no means the first time Elon Musk’s ambitious company has partnered with the space agency — in 2014, SpaceX was also tasked with providing launch services for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, whose goal “is to detect transiting exoplanets orbiting nearby bright stars.” And now, SpaceX’s latest project is the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, with a targeted launch date of April 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SWOT is expected to set NASA back by around $112 million, making it one of the more expensive SpaceX missions to date. The satellite is charged with collecting “detailed measurements of how water bodies on Earth change over time.” It’s a comprehensive mission, covering “at least 90 percent of the globe” by focusing on all the planet’s water sources — everything from lakes to reservoirs to oceans. SpaceX’s spacecraft will make its observations “at least twice every 21 days, aid in freshwater management around the world, to improve ocean circulation models and weather and climate predictions.”

“We’re excited to carry this critical science payload into orbit for NASA, the nation, and the international community,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “We appreciate NASA’s partnership and confidence in SpaceX as a launch provider.”

The mission and spacecraft will be a collaborative management effort between NASA and the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

NASA’s continuing support from SpaceX may just help Musk’s company achieve its goal of colonizing Mars all the more reasonable. So while the company may be starting with satellite missions, it may not be too long before it delves into deeper, more unexplored territory.

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