How to watch the Earth-observing NASA satellites blast off

Cesar Mills
May 26, 2018

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched satellites Tuesday for longtime customers Iridium Communications Inc. and NASA, reusing part of a previously flown rocket for its 10th mission of 2018.

USA private space firm SpaceX launched two new Earth-observing satellites for NASA and five commercial communications satellites for Iridium on a used Falcon 9 rocket in a ride-share mission on 22 May. The two satellites, about the size of a sports auto, will fly in tandem 137 miles apart in a 305-mile orbit around Earth's poles. SpaceX did not attempt to recover it this time. It is an effort to observe the movement of water and other mass around the planet by precisely tracking the changing pull of gravity.

Meanwhile the SpaceX second-stage booster will fire until 11 minutes and 33 seconds into the flight, when NASA's GRACE-FO spacecraft will be deployed.

GRACE satellites (including these two new satellites) fly in uniform pairs so that scientists can have a better read on how much mass is below the flight path. This boat will seek to "catch" the fairing before it falls into the ocean. The launch will pose a special challenge for SpaceX as it requires the two payloads to be delivered at different altitudes, with NASA's hardware being deployed at around 300 miles and the Iridium NEXT satellites at almost 500 miles.

Iridium used the extra lift capacity to launch three more Iridium Next satellites than it would have using the Dnepr vehicle.

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The Iridium Next satellites are less interesting: They will join the 50 Iridium Next satellites already floating in space that, according to, will eventually make up part of the 75-satellite communications constellation.

"GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves and the trends which are taking place over the last 10 or 15 years", Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist, told a pre-launch press conference. The full constellation is to consist of 66 operational satellites, nine in-orbit spares and six ground spares.

These variations in distance will be constantly recorded by the spacecraft, because each shift signals a change in mass on the planet underneath. "You can't manage it well until you can measure it. GRACE-FO provides a unique way to measure water in many of its phases, allowing us to manage water resources more effectively".

In addition to the microwave ranging system also used by the original GRACE satellite, the GRACE-FO satellites will use a laser rangefinder to measure their separation. GRACE-Fo is a joint project between NASA and Germany's GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences.

Other reports by GizPress

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