Elon Musk’s company just sign a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to launch the agency’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission. Space Exploration Technologies, better known as  SpaceX, will use a Falcon 9 rocket to send into orbit NASA’s mission in April 2021.

The contract with SpaceX includes the launch service, spacecraft processing, tracking services, and data and telemetry support. Sending the SWOT mission to space costs $112 million. NASA’s Launch Service Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be in charge of the launch, even when SpaceX is providing the service.

Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image Credit: NASA

SpaceX has worked with NASA in other missions, including over eight journeys to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Future contracts with the agency include NASA’s TESS mission -scheduled for February 2017-, NASA Crew Demo 1 and 2, and more flights to resupply the ISS.

SWOT is not the first critical science mission trusted to SpaceX services. Previous major NASA missions launched by the private company include the Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite, which was launched in January and cost around $82 million. The TESS launching cost $87 million.   

“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.”

NASA’s SWOT mission will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Falcon 9 is SpaceX two-stage rocket designed to transport satellites. It has nine first-stage engines that guarantee the Falcon 9’s mission safety in case of an engine shutdown. It heights 229.6 feet (70 meters) and has a 12 feet diameter (3.7m).

The rocket is the first private company asset that visited the ISS, which happened in 2012 when SpaceX delivered the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. SpaceX Dragon carries cargo in a pressurized capsule and unpressurized trunk. The spacecraft can also accommodate secondary payloads if needed and has being hired by several agencies to make spaceflights.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 explosion occurred in September in Florida

On September 1st a Falcon 9 rocket exploded in SpaceX Cape Canaveral launch pad. The accident left no victims but made people in the surrounding areas feel that their buildings were going to collapse. The event happened during a static fire test of the rocket’s engines.

The primary cause of the explosion was liquid oxygen, which is used as the rocket propellant. The report of the accident said the gas became excessively cold which turned it into a solid state. The company stated on November that the Falcon 9 was being fueled when the explosion took place.

The accident is the first serious challenge SpaceX has faced since the company was founded in 2002. Still, the recent obstacle did not stop corporations and agencies to continue hiring SpaceX services. Elon Musk’s space enterprise has signed over 30 future contracts. 

The SWOT mission: Studying how water bodies on Earth change

The SWOT satellite is designed to make Earth’s first global survey on the surface water to understand how it changes over time. The orbiter is intended to study at least 90 percent of our world, focusing on lakes, rivers, reservoirs and oceans. The mission data will improve weather and climate predictions and analyze how freshwater is managed around the world.  

The project is the result of international collaboration between NASA and the French Space Agency (CNES). SWOT brings together oceanographers and hydrologists from both countries. The mission will take a close look at the ocean’s topography. There are many missions pending to be launch in NASA’s list, but SWOT is among the tasks that should be implemented in the coming decade according to the Research Council Decadal Survey of Earth.

SWOT will survey Earth’s water bodies at least twice every 21 days to provide high-resolution elevation measurements to understand how water behaves on our planet. The orbiter will also map wetlands and non-channelized flow.

When it comes to oceanography, the human race is short on information which is vital to comprehend global climate change. Our understanding of the oceanic circulation does not fully explain ocean’s kinetic energy and where its dissipation occurs.

SWOT goal is to provide high-spatial resolution, global measurements of ocean surface topography to improve oceans circulations models which will lead to better prediction of weather and climate. SWOT data will also explain variations in oceans, fisheries, and offshore commercial operations. Knowing how water bodies behave in our planet will help us prevent a freshwater shortage and improve our economy.

Current hydrology knowledge is also limited and makes it challenging to solve freshwater issues. SWOT seeks to broaden what we know about lakes, rivers and oceans to guarantee fresh water for everybody for a prolonged period since it is an essential need. The satellite will measure water storage changes on Earth including wetlands. The data will serve to estimate discharge in rivers and to understand the global water cycle.

Source: NASA