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Omniscient GRACE

Using NASA satellites to observe global water resources

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Perspective often grants us the vantage point necessary to observe things with clarity. When Carl Sagan described gazing back at the earth from space in Pale Blue Dot, many of us were, for the first time, able to visualize our home planet from afar and reflect on it in the context of the universe.

On May 22, SpaceX launched a group of satellites into space that included two specialized satellites for NASA, which will offer scientists a similar perspective. The satellites, part of the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE-FO) mission, will study changes in the distribution of water on Earth.

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They will travel precisely 137 miles apart. But each time the first probe passes above a large area of mass, such as an underground aquifer, the mass’ gravity will tug at the satellite, affecting the distance between the two. By constantly measuring the distance between the two satellites using microwave signals, researchers will create a gravity map. Changes in that map mean changes in how the Earth’s water is distributed.

As water industry professionals, we are keenly aware that monitoring the earth’s water cycle is critical for resource management, but researchers explain that it is also important to understand the evolution of the Earth’s climate. The data resulting from the GRACE-FO mission will be indicative of the sustainability of life on the planet.

“In order for us to understand how our climate system is evolving and predict the future course of it, we really need to understand how the different elements of it function and how they’re trending. Water … is one of the vital signs of how our climate is evolving,” Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told The Verge.

The satellites replace the two original GRACE satellites, which were put into orbit in 2002 and went offline last year. Observing changes in global water distribution from space requires the precision to measure shifts in distance that are 100 times narrower than a human hair. Researchers explain that the new satellites use the same approach to gathering water data, but they are also equipped with a Laser Ranging Interferometer (LRI), the first active ranging laser to ever be used in space, that will provide increased precision.

The 2002 mission produced ground-breaking discoveries that resulted in over 30,000 publications. The data also gave scientists valuable insights into melting ice sheets, droughts, and sea level rise and supported the development of more sustainable approaches to water management.

“This mission, like our whole portfolio of Earth-observing missions, contributes to a broad understanding about how Earth works. The science goals for these missions are not limited to one science area or another. They bring insights to many fields of research and tangible benefits to society,” NASA’s Dr. Frank Webb and Dr. Felix Landerer told Forbes.

With this in mind, we look forward to the myriad of new discoveries that the GRACE-FO launch will provide in the coming months, as well as the omniscient perspective it will offer.

What water distribution mysteries would you like GRACE-FO’s research to shed light on? WE_bug_web


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  1. I don’t understand the phrase “100 times narrower than a human hair. Did you mean to write “.01 times the thickness of a human hair or .00003 inches”?

  2. very good info Laura, thanks and keep us informed please as released and analyzed. I hope it can give breakdowns on saline vs fresh in GW.

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