Aquarius satellite launches today, will measure ocean salinity from space

Eilieen Gunn writes,
If all goes well, the Aquarius satellite, which will map the salinity of the oceans, collecting more data in a couple of months than is contained in the entire 125-year historical record, will launch this morning (Friday. June 10) at 7:20 am, PDT. (That's 10:20 am EDT and 2:20 pm GMT.) I will watch, because this is more than just another great launch, another extension of the human mind and eye into the cosmos. This one is personal.

For more than thirty years, my brother, John Gunn, has measured and analyzed ocean currents and the salinity and temperature that contribute to their function and variability. He has thrown current meters into Arctic and Antarctic waters from small vessels in frigid temperatures, recovered the meters, and analyzed the data. He has spent months in a submarine beneath the polar icecap--back when we had a permanent icecap--collecting data about how the seas function.

For the past eight years, he has worked as part of a large international project involving teams of researchers from NASA, JPL, and Argentina's Comisipn Nacional de Actividades Espaciales to launch the satellite that will, he hopes, go up this morning. This is what he wrote to his family about it:

'The launch is taking place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California no earlier than 7:20am Pacific time (10:20 Eastern). It can be seen on NASA TV and as streaming video on the Internet. Weather at the launch site can be foggy in June, so there may be limited (or no) visibility, but there will be a lot of views of anxious people in the control room. There is always a possibility of a delay and the launch window is only five minutes. If we miss that we have to go another day. Check the countdown timer at Video coverage begins at 5:30 PDT and lasts until about 9am PDT.'

He adds, 'After the launch there are a couple critical points. After the rocket leaves the atmosphere the cowling around the satellite breaks away. If this doesn't happen, the rocket doesn't make orbit but makes a big splash near Antarctica. As the rocket passes the south pole and approaches South Africa it drops the rocket body, again very important.'

Aquarius will provide the essential sea-surface salinity data needed to link the two major components of the climate system: the water cycle and ocean circulation. There is a great overview of the purpose of the mission on the NASA Aquarius site. My brother is part of the team from Earth & Space Research, one of the many teams that made this complex project possible.

Be there or be square.

NASA: Aquarius Mission Web Site (Thanks, Eileen!)


  1. I hope this rocket gets off OK. Call me an old conspiracy theorist if you like but has anyone else noticed that recent satellites that have an environmental monitoring function haven’t fared that well in the launch not being all explody kind of way.

  2. +1 Karnuvap for not being all explody (and I noticed that environmental=boom factor as well, but didn’t want people knitting me tin foil hats)

  3. The NASA web page describes Aquarius as the first salinity mission. Google ESA’s SMOS to see the results from the first salinity mission, launched last year.

    1. We’ve really got to find a new source of FONTS for these things. I mean, Papyrus? Seriously?

  4. of course, here in Argentina we read our newspapers and their heroic headlines… “Histórico: la NASA lanzó un satélite argentino desde California” (Historic: Nasa launches an argentine satellite from California). They barely name the other space agencies…

  5. Must get rid of this earwormm. Only one obvious method:

    Harmony and understanding
    Sympathy and trust abounding
    No more falsehoods or derisions
    Golden living dreams of visions
    Mystic crystal revelation
    And the mind’s true liberation
    Aquarius! Aquarius!

  6. Just seen the spacecraft separation. There was a hairy moment when the video dropped spectacularly but everything seems to have gone OK.
    I am happy to be wrong about this one.
    Here’s to the dawning of a new age etc.

  7. “The server at is taking too long to respond.”

    Damn. Now I’ll never know how many billions are being spent finding how salty the ocean is. While US classrooms have 35 kids in them instead of 12. And their math and science skills rank average or worse worldwide.

    1. yeah, we should definitely knock off all the aspirational math and science projects and focus on our real needs, guns and butter.

    2. The reason we need to spend billions studying ocean salinity, aside from simply adding to our collective knowledge of how the world’s physical systems interact, is it will help enormously in evaluating, understanding, and dealing with climate change.

      From Wikipedia: “The degree of salinity in oceans is a driver of the world’s ocean circulation, where density changes due to both salinity changes and temperature changes at the surface of the ocean produce changes in buoyancy, which cause the sinking and rising of water masses. Changes in the salinity of the oceans are thought to contribute to global changes in carbon dioxide as more saline waters are less soluble to carbon dioxide. In addition, during glacial periods, the hydrography is such that a possible cause of reduced circulation is the production of stratified oceans. Hence it is difficult in this case to subduct water through the thermohaline circulation.”

      As the polar icecaps melt, the salinity of the oceans is changing. Until now, we’ve been studying the currents, temperature, and salinity by throwing meters in the water. The meters were suspended at specific depths to measure the temperature and salinity, and as they were moved about by the currents/wind, they also tracked the currents themselves. Up until the last decade or so, the meters has to be retrieved in some way so that the data they stored could be acquired and analyzed. In recent years, the use of satellites has made it possible to collect the data without having to retrieve the meters. It is my understanding that this is the first satellite that will directly measure the salinity of the top layers of the oceans.

      It’s the difference between having data from many tiny tracks and having large swaths of data. The current-meter measurements, however, can be taken from greater depths than the satellite measurements, which (I think) are based on sunlight reflected off salt in the water. Salinity and temperature differentials take big 3-dimensional shapes in the water: they are not necessarily even layers. So I’m guessing float meters will still be useful.

      If I’ve got any of this wrong, I’m sure any oceanographers out there will correct me.

    3. Um, jphilby? Are you suggesting we teach science better to US kids, but then not bother to fund the research that enables them to make the most of their knowledge?

      It’s not an either/or proposition. Let’s teach the kids better, agreed, but maybe we could get the money from somewhere else than by cutting the research that will help us figure out how to survive the coming ecological disasters.

      I wonder if the military could kick in a few bucks, and maybe those hedge-fund guys? The big banks? I’m sure there’s some small change there that could be put to good use.

  8. My brother the Oceanographer says: “Successful launch in the fog, but thanks to NASA TV we saw it all! Solar panels deployed on time an hour after launch so that was the last hurdle. Aquarius is on it’s way!”

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