SpaceX Deploys NASA’s Billion-Dollar Environmental Research Satellite into Orbit


SpaceX recently launched a nearly $1 billion environmental research satellite for NASA, named the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission. The satellite will provide crucial information on climate change and the global impact of carbon, aerosols, and sea life. Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth sciences division, stated that PACE will significantly advance the understanding of the relationship between aerosols, clouds, and the global energy balance, which is a key source of uncertainty in climate modeling.

St. Germain further noted that PACE will enhance knowledge about the oceans, which cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and are one of the least understood parts of the Earth system. The satellite will focus on understanding phytoplankton, microorganisms that form the foundation of ocean life.

The satellite was launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, marking the first polar launch from the East Coast for the U.S. government since 1960. The satellite will orbit the Earth’s poles, allowing it to monitor the entire planet as it rotates below.

The PACE mission journey to the launch pad was not smooth sailing. The Trump administration attempted to cancel the project multiple times in order to redirect resources to NASA’s accelerated moon program. However, Congress resisted, and the funding was reinstated each time.

The PACE satellite, weighing 3,748 pounds, was developed at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It is equipped with three instruments: a hyper-spectral color camera and two light-analyzing polarimeters. These will observe the interactions of sunlight with the atmosphere, ocean, and land.

Jeremy Werdell, PACE project scientist, emphasized that PACE is not exclusively an ocean, atmosphere, or land mission, but encompasses all these aspects. The mission is expected to provide high-precision data that will enable researchers to refine computer models, offering policy makers more accurate information about ongoing trends and long-term threats.

The project will also offer real-time measurements of aerosol movement through the atmosphere, plankton health, and carbon transport. This will help unravel the scientific mystery of how ocean life interacts with the atmosphere and the global climate.

The PACE satellite, its Falcon 9 rocket and mission operations cost NASA $948 million. After extensive tests and instrument calibration, scientific observations are expected to begin in about two months. The design life of the spacecraft is three years, but project officials are hopeful it will operate for 10 years or more.



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