Minutes before the sun dawned on the coast of central California on Saturday 31 Jan, NASA looked to the skies, and launched a critical part of its Earth Sciences mission into Low-Earth Orbit. As floods make their way through parts of the country, and as a historic drought continues to punish the farmlands, scientists will now be able to more accurately observe and monitor moisture levels within the land itself, through an orbiting observatory named SMAP.
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SMAP is one of NASA’s Earth-focused observation satellites that will measure soil moisture around the world and also monitor Western drought. Adding SMAP to the world’s drought-monitoring arsenal couldn’t be timed any better. California just experience the worst drought in the past 1200 years and recent NASA estimates say its caused the state to lose near 11 trillion (with a “t”) gallons of water.
The Delta II lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast, boosting SMAP into the Earth’s orbit at 9:22 a.m. EST (14:22 GMT) on Saturday.
The instruments on the spacecraft will be turned on in 11 days, according to the mission’s timeline. Another three months will be spent on calibration and preparation for routine data collection. The first verified scientific results are expected to be released in about 15 months – the period needed to validate the measurements.
Some 45 participants of the Early Adopter program will get access to the mission’s raw data to test how it could be better integrated into their workflow.
“This data will benefit not only scientists seeking a better understanding of our planet, climate and environment … it’s a boon for emergency planners and policy makers,” said Geoffery Yoder, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for programs.
JPL manages the $916 million mission, which is designed to last at least three years. Besides the satellite, the rocket also carried three research nanosatellites for JPL, Montana State University and California Polytechnic State University. More than 100 university students took part in designing and building the tiny satellites known as CubeSats.
All four CubeSats were ejected and flying free Saturday morning and their transmitters were slowly being turned on, said Scott Higginbotham, a mission manager in the Ground Processing Directorate at NASA.
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Press release: http://goo.gl/68CwHL.