Two satellites that are expected to give scientists further insight into climate change on Earth were successfully launched into orbit early Tuesday afternoon from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from VAFB’s Space Launch Complex-4 at 12:47 p.m. and rumbled through a mostly clear sky as it delivered seven total satellites into space for two separate purposes. Two of the satellites were part of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO, mission, while the other five were communication satellites that were set to join Iridium’s NEXT constellation.
The GRACE-FO mission is a joint effort between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences. GRACE-FO, according to NASA, is expected to provide critical measurements that will be used together with other data to monitor the movement of water masses across Earth and mass changes within Earth itself. The data is expected to improve humans’ understanding of Earth system processes.
“Our philosophy on Mars has been to follow the water, and that has relevance right here on Earth, as well,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a video statement released just prior to the launch. “GRACE Follow-On data will provide unique insights into Earth’s changing climate and it will have far-reaching benefits for society, such as improving water resource management. Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth — for health, for agriculture and for maintaining our very way of life.”
The satellites are expected to track mass changes of Earth’s polar ice sheets, estimate global groundwater storage changes, measure mass changes caused by earthquakes and infer changes in deep ocean currents.
Deployment of the twin GRACE-FO satellites was confirmed about 13 minutes after lift-off.
The mission was the first for NASA from VAFB since the historic InSight Mission to Mars that kicked off on May 5.
For Iridium, a communications company, the launch marked the sixth in its NEXT series.
The launch upped the company’s total number of satellites in its new $3 billion constellation to 55. Another 20 are still planned for deployment. Iridium officials have said they intend to complete the constellation this year, likely with just two more launches.
The next launch planned from VAFB is tentatively scheduled for sometime in July. That launch will involve a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivering 10 more NEXT satellites into orbit for Iridium.