NASA Partners with Europeans to Launch Ocean Observing Satellite

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Annabel Driussi, ODP Contributing Writer

NASA launched a new ocean observation satellite on the back of a SpaceX rocket last week. Now that it’s in space, the Sentinel-6 named the “Michael Freilich” will perform continuous monitoring of ocean levels and currents for the next 30 years. The “unprecedented accuracy” of its data will benefit ocean travel, weather forecasts, hurricane predictions, and climate science.  “The Earth is changing, and this satellite will help deepen our understanding of how,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. “The changing Earth processes are affecting sea level globally, but the impact on local communities varies widely. International collaboration is critical to both understanding these changes and informing coastal communities around the world.”

Why This Matters: The Sentinel-6 will help scientists monitor the climate crisis as it unfolds in our world’s oceans and coasts (home to 40% of humanity). Hopefully, its data will also help prevent tragic deaths from hurricanes, which are becoming increasingly unpredictable and dangerous as our oceans warm. This is the kind of research that the government does best — the data will benefit scientists globally and be widely available free of charge. You can watch as it circles the Earth – and maybe go for a swim through the solar system, while you’re at it – using NASA’s web-based app, Eyes on the Earth. Far out!

Partnering with Europe

This mission marks the first international involvement in the EU’s earth monitoring program, Copernicus. Many partners helped bring Sentinel-6 to life, including NASA. Climate disaster knows no national boundaries, unfortunately – so in order to take meaningful climate action, we must foster a healthy attitude toward international collaborative efforts. The Biden team has already vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement when Biden takes office in January. Ocean health is key to regulating the Earth’s climate — the ocean has been the largest carbon sink thus far. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained its significance for adapting to climate change that is already occurring — “whether providing farmers with agricultural data or aiding first responders with our Disasters program, we are tirelessly committed not just to learning and exploring, but to having an impact where it’s needed.”  NOAA and the European weather agencies will use the data to improve weather forecasts.

Its Namesake

The spacecraft is named for Michael Freilich, the former director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, who was a leading advocate for advancing ocean observations from space. Freilich died three months ago.  “Michael was a tireless force in Earth sciences. Climate change and sea-level rise know no national borders, and he championed international collaboration to confront the challenge,” said ESA (European Space Agency) Director of Earth Observation Programmes Josef Aschbacher. “It’s fitting that a satellite in his name will continue the ‘gold standard’ of sea-level measurements for the next half-decade. This European-U.S. cooperation is exemplary and will pave the way for more cooperation opportunities in Earth observation.”

To Go Deeper: Watch the launch here.

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