NASA Launches PACE to Advance Knowledge of Ocean-Atmosphere Interactions

NASA Launches PACE to Advance Knowledge of Ocean-Atmosphere Interactions

Early this morning NASA launched the PACE satellite to advance understanding of the oceans, the atmosphere, and how they interact. The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud ocean-Ecosystem satellite’s launch today is the culmination of a long journey for the program, which survived repeated cancellation attempts by the Trump Administration. The launch is also the first time a U.S. government satellite has launched into a polar orbit from Florida since 1960.

Managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, the $948 million mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) at 1:33 am ET. The launch was delayed twice because of poor weather, but went perfectly today.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which accounted for $81 million of the mission’s cost, put PACE into a polar orbit that circles the Earth’s poles so it can see the entirety of the globe.

NASA Earth Science Division Director Karen St. Germain at a February 4, 2024 briefing on the PACE mission. Screengrab.

Earth is 70 percent water and studying the oceans is one of PACE’s primary goals. Karen St. Germain, the head of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said at a pre-launch press briefing on Monday that “in many ways we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about our own oceans.”

At a science briefing a day earlier, she said that coupled with NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite launched last year, PACE will “usher in a golden era” in ocean studies. SWOT “teaches us how the oceans work physically. PACE is going to show us the biology of the oceans at a scale that we’ve never been able to see before. It’s going to teach us about the oceans in the same way Webb [the James Webb Space Telescope] is teaching us about the cosmos.”

PACE will be looking at the “smallest things” in the ocean — phytoplankton. Similarly it will study the smallest things in the atmosphere — aerosols. “Studying both together will allow us to understand the strong interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere.”

Illustration of NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, Credit: NASA

PACE Project Scientist Jeremy Werdell said at Sunday’s science briefing that the idea for PACE dates back 20 years and it took 9 years to build the spacecraft. “What we’re doing with PACE is really the search for the microscopic, mostly invisible universe in the sea and the sky and to some degree of land.”

“When I think about what PACE offers to the world, it comes in two words: connectedness and discovery. Connectedness because we are studying the combined earth system. It’s not an ocean mission. It’s not an atmosphere mission. It’s not a land mission. It’s all of those things … and you can’t understand one without understanding the other.

“And discovery? … This is a mission that we don’t know what we’re going to learn. And that is so deeply exciting. I wish I were a student again where I could be part of that.” — Jeremey Werdell, NASA Goddard

The Trump Administration tried to cancel PACE and several other NASA earth science missions in its budget requests each of the four years it was in office. Congress rejected those proposals every time. Asked what it was like surviving that experience, Werdell declined to get into politics, but emphasized that the earth science community “really wanted this” mission so they were confident they’d succeed and their morale remained high.

PACE’s design lifetime is 3 years, but it has enough fuel to operate for at least 10 years, St. Germain said.

NASA Launch Services Program Senior Director Tim Dunn said at Monday’s briefing that the U.S. government has not launched into a polar orbit from Florida since November 1960 when a failed launch dropped debris on Cuba. The government decided to move polar launches to Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA where the rocket stays out over the ocean on a southerly flight trajectory.

The 1960 launch was of a Transit navigation satellite. The Cuban government claimed it killed a cow although that was never verified.

SpaceX, however, began launching Starlink satellites into polar orbits from Florida in 2020. They had 11 successes already before today. PACE is the 12th. Dunn said SpaceX uses an autonomous flight safety system and brings the Falcon 9 first stages back either to a drone ship at sea or to CCSFS.  “We were able to then do all of the calculations to protect the public both here in the U.S. as well as our international neighbors in the Caribbean, and especially in Cuba” and “we can now successfully do that.”

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