Satellite to monitor earth’s sea levels will be launched today

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Sentinel-6 Image
An illustration of Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich spacecraft in orbit above Earth

A next-generation satellite will be launched more than 830 miles above the earth’s surface to keep an eye on global sea levels.

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite is scheduled to be launched today as the next generation spacecraft that will keep an eye on the sea levels of our planet.

A joint venture between NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the European Space Agency, it will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, US on November 21 at 5PM GMT.

A livestream of the launch will be available on the NASA website. Even if today’s launch is delayed due to any reason there will be more chances in the coming days.

Once in space, the pickup truck-size satellite will monitor the global sea level from 830 miles above the Earth’s surface for the next five and a half years.

Satellites have helped to track the Earth’s sea level for 30 years. This is the latest satellite in the series, but it will gather the most accurate data to date on the global sea level and how it is changing in the face of climate change.

Sentinel-6 has a higher measurement range resolution, which means it can monitor both large features, such as the Gulf Stream, as well as smaller features, such as variations on the coastline.

The satellite will collect data that can be used to enhance weather forecasting, hurricane monitoring and climate models such as humidity and air temperature. The data can also be used by scientists to predict areas where coastlines can shift.

The satellite has a twin, Sentinel-6B, which will be launched in 2025 as this is a two-pronged mission. Together the twin satellites will carry on the tradition of continuous sea level rise tracking into the fourth decade.

Thomas Zurbuchen Image
Thomas Zurbuchen
Associate Administrator
NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

“This mission is a global partnership required to study our planet because it belongs to all of us. To understand what climate change means for humanity, science needs to take a long view. This mission is a follow up of 30 years of uninterrupted measurements by spacecraft that have circled the Earth. We’ll have another decade of critical measurements from that perspective. We do this together as an international community and that makes us stronger.”

Sentinel-6 is following in the footsteps of a satellite dubbed Jason-3, launched in 2016. At the moment, it still provides observations of the topography of the global ocean. An overlap in satellites helps the mission teams to ensure that before the previous mission ends, they receive continuous data.

Sentinel-6 will fly 30 seconds behind Jason-3 after launch. Before Jason-3’s mission ends, the team will cross-calibrate the data from both satellites over the next year.

Sea level monitoring and climate change

This long tradition of sea level-monitoring satellites began with the original Jason series missions and its predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon, which launched in 2001 and 1992, respectively.

It’s a part of Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation program. This program maintains accurate data for the sea level height for more than 90% of Earth’s ocean. The data collected by this chain of satellites has contributed to climate studies, marine meteorology and oceanography.

Long-term continuous global sea level monitoring is crucial to understanding how our world is responding to climate change and global warming. According to climate experts, when the global sea level increases it’s a clear indicator of global warming.

Understanding the global sea level can help scientists track ocean currents as they transfer heat across the planet. This ripple effect can influence our weather.

Coastlines also shift in response to climate change-driven sea level rise. As the planet warms, the ocean absorbs heat trapped by greenhouse gases, causing some of the expansion behind sea level rise. Melting glaciers and ice sheets account for the majority of the shift.

The rate of sea level rise has increased over the last 25 years, and it will continue to in the future. It’s an important factor to track because coastal flooding caused by storms can reshape populated areas.

Global sea level is rising 0.13 inches per year which is 30 percent more than when the first mission launched in 1992, according to NASA.