Nasa to launch spacecraft that monitors Earth's oceans and climate

Lift-off aboard a SpaceX rocket is expected on February 7

This May 18, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows Earth from 36,000 nautical miles away as photographed from the Apollo 10 spacecraft during its trans-lunar journey toward the moon. In March 2021, the U.S. space agency announced that new telescope observations have ruled out any chance of the asteroid Apophis colliding with Earth in 2068. (NASA via AP)
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Nasa is expected to launch a spacecraft on Wednesday that will study the interaction between Earth's oceans and its atmosphere, helping scientists to better understand the planet's air quality and climate change.

The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (Pace) craft had been due to launch on Tuesday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from a Florida spaceport, but it was pushed by a day because of unstable weather.

Pace will study how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide, if aerosols fuel phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) growth in the surface ocean and will help to identify how long harmful algal blooms last in the ocean.

Kate Calvin, chief scientist and senior climate adviser at Nasa, said at a remote science briefing on Sunday that 2023 was the hottest year on record and Pace's launch is a timely effort.

“Collectively, the last 10 years had been the hottest since modern record keeping began,” she said.

“We're seeing more hot years and an overall trend in warming driven by greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide.

“As carbon dioxide is released, some of it is absorbed by land, some of it is absorbed by the ocean and some stays in the atmosphere, trapping heat.

“Greenhouse gases aren't the only factors affecting temperature. There's also these tiny particles called aerosols that reflect or absorb sunlight and also affect cloud formation.”

Ms Calvin said Pace will provide more information on oceans and atmosphere “including providing a new way to study how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon”.

The US space agency has launched more than 12 earth science missions. These capture data on Earth's land, water, ice and atmosphere to help scientists understand climate change and how the planet works as a whole.

One mission includes the Aqua satellite, which has operated for more than 20 years and has helped provide a long-term image of natural and human-induced changes to the environment.

But Nasa claims that Pace has significantly more enhanced science instruments, including ones that would help to differentiate phytoplankton types by their unique colour signatures – a leap from the traditional method of direct water sampling.

The advanced capability will allow scientists to study the various roles the tiny plants play in ecosystems.

These include their impact on carbon sequestration – the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and contribution to harmful algae blooms.

Jeremy Werdell, project scientist for Pace, said at the briefing that the spacecraft would help spot phytoplankton from above, “rather than have boats everywhere all at once in the ocean”.

“What we're doing here with Pace is really the search for the microscopic, mostly invisible universe in the sea and the sky, and to some degree, land too,” he said.

“Why do we study the ocean? Well, it not only provides food that we eat, and air that we breathe, but it helps regulate climate and weather.

“Carbon moves through the [Earth's] system through phytoplankton, that's incredibly important.”

SpaceX and Nasa will broadcast the launch of Pace on their websites, with coverage set to begin at 9.45pm, UAE time.

The launch is expected to take place at 10.33pm – depending on the weather.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 2:51 PM