As the Jason-3 satellite enters its low-Earth orbit, expect to see big things happening on our planet below.The Jason-3 satellite made its successful launch on Jan. 17 and is now circling 830 miles above us, using radar altimetry to gather data that helps scientists track crucial ocean information. The data will be used to monitor sea-level changes, sea surface temperatures and other indicators of serious changes to Earth — not too shabby for something that’s the size of a minivan.
The launch comes just in time for Jason-3 to replace its predecessors Jason-2 and Jason-1. The project is named for JASO1, a French meeting of scientists to discuss oceanic altimetry, and the leader of the mythic Argonauts. The latest Jason also will make legendary discoveries, as it leads scientists from across the globe through their journey to a greater understanding of our oceans and climate.
The project was sponsored by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). Thanks to their cooperative international effort, Jason-3 carries highly accurate altimetry instruments that will capture important data that all agencies can use in fields like weather forecasting, coastal modeling and sea level monitoring.
This crucial satellite’s journey to orbit was not without complications. Originally, NASA and NOAA had planned to send Jason-3 into orbit in July 2015. Engineers discovered that one of the satellite’s four thrusters was contaminated in June 2015. Satellites will not launch properly if their thrusters are polluted, so NOAA delayed the launch until January 2016 to investigate the source of the contamination and provide necessary updates.
Antonio J. Busalacchi, now a professor in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Division and director of the Earth Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) at the University of Maryland, worked on research for the TOPEX mission that preceded the first Jason satellite.
“In the context of Earth remote sensing, the launch of Jason-3 is a model of international collaboration and one of our most illustrative examples of a Climate Data Record,” he said.
The Climate Data Record Jason-3 collects will allow researchers from collaborating institutions to maintain long-term climate analyses and improve their models of how the atmosphere, oceans, sea ice, and our planet are changing. NOAA has big plans for climate data records like those Jason-3 will provide, noting that the organization plans on using the data to improve “the nation’s resilience to climate change and variability, maintain our economic vitality and improve the security and well-being of the public.”
This is a tall order, but not an impossible one for this intrepid satellite. Jason-1 and Jason-2 have already given us comprehensive ocean maps, improved El Niño tracking, and provided “unprecedented” insight about the Earth’s gravitational field. As Jason-3 takes its place in the atmospheric orbit and prepares to send a new set of Earth observation data back to the surface, researchers expect to build on these discoveries to better humanity’s understanding of our planet.