NASA finally launches PACE Earth science satellite

'New era of ocean science' hoped to follow debut of billion-dollar plankton-spotter

NASA has successfully launched PACE, its latest near-billion-dollar climate-monitoring satellite that will study how microscopic plankton and aerosol particles are impacted by global warming.

Launched on Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Plankton, Aerosol, Climate, ocean Ecosystem spacecraft took to the skies at 0133 EST (0633 UTC). Mission control confirmed it had managed to establish communication with the satellite.

PACE’s primary payloads are a spectrometer to measure the intensity of light, and Multi-angle Polarimeters to measure the polarization of sunlight as it passes through clouds, aerosols, and the ocean.

Mapping the color of oceans provides a wealth of information – including the level of chlorophyll in phytoplankton, which can reveal changes in surrounding temperatures and oxygen levels. Populations of these tiny algae can form huge dense blooms observable from space.

Measuring the different angles of UV-to-shortwave sunlight allows scientists to probe the size and composition of particles that can impact weather.

"Observations and scientific research from PACE will profoundly advance our knowledge of the ocean's role in the climate cycle," Karen St Germain, director, Earth Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, at NASA, explained in a statement. "The value of PACE data skyrockets when we combine it with data and science from our Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission – ushering in a new era of ocean science."

Interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere are complex. Phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide and sunlight at various rates in different conditions to produce oxygen, but in warmer temperatures some variants can emit carbon dioxide too, recent research showed.

PACE was first proposed decades ago, but its journey to space was slow. In 2018, it hung in the balance when the Trump administration proposed to cut funding for it. Fortunately it was saved by Congress, which approved funding of around $964 million.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the mission team on a successful launch, noting "Missions like this are supporting the Biden-Harris Administration's climate agenda and helping us answer urgent questions about our changing climate." ®

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