New NASA satellite prepares to add vital info to sea level observations

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A joint U.S.-European effort is preparing to launch the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite. The satellite is scheduled to launch from California on Saturday at 12:17 p.m. EST.  

This mission has not one, but two satellites that will study sea levels over the next decade.

Josh Willis is the lead NASA Scientist for this mission and is excited for the next decade of discoveries.

“Well Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich is the satellite so nice we built it twice. We have two of these. Michael Freilich is actually the first one and we’re going to launch the second one about five years from now. And together they’ll give us a 10-year long record of sea level everywhere in the world collected once every ten days.”

The satellites will provide crucial information on our seas and also aid in weather forecasts and climate models by providing temperature and humidity data. 

“It helps us track global sea level rise, which is one of the most important consequences of human caused climate change, and it lets us see currents in the ocean. It lets us see where the heat is in the ocean below the surface, and that’s important for things like hurricanes. So it’ll help us predict hurricanes, it’ll help us predict the weather and climate, and of course we’ll be tracking sea level rise for another decade,” says Willis.  

You may think that you need to be on the ground to measure sea level, but it’s best to have your eyes in the sky.

“The oceans cover more than two-thirds of our planet. So if you want to see the big picture, you’ve got to get the bird’s eye view. The best way to see the global oceans is from space, and that’s why we have to keep flying these missions,” says Willis.

The satellites will be quite a bit higher than the International Space Station. They will be around 800 miles up from the ocean’s surface. Despite their incredible distance from Earth, they will have amazing accuracy.

“They can measure the height of the water with an accuracy of about one inch every second as they pass over the oceans. So they’re really an amazing technological tool.”

Willis knows we have to continually watch the oceans to understand the interference and the effects the human population has on the global climate. Although these two satellites will take us through 2030, the mission must continue into the years to come.

“We have to keep measuring sea level rise. The oceans aren’t going to stop rising any time soon. In fact, every decade we’re seeing faster and faster rates of rise. We’re really great at predicting global warming but we’re not so great at predicting global sea level rise, and these satellites give us our best prediction for the 10, 20, 30 years out in the future.”

The first satellite is named for the former director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, Dr. Michael Freilich.

Freilich was the director from 2006 to 2019 and was key in the advancement of observing the ocean from space. Freilich passed away in August 2020, but his work and legacy will live on for generations.

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