A NASA spacecraft designed to study and map the moisture locked within the Earth’s soil over the next three years lifted off in the predawn hour on Saturday from the California coastline.
The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite will begin a mission to create global maps of the water embedded in the top two inches of the soil regions across the globe. As SMAP moves around Earth in a polar orbit, it will study only the moisture and not regions covered in ice, and become a new source to locate new drought regions.
Soaring 426 miles above Earth in a near polar orbit, SMAP will sweep its rotating golden radar antenna across a 620-mile wide region. The new data will assist farmers and scientists in climate and weather forecasts and track water movement across the globe.
The United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket launched at 6:22 a.m. PST (9:22 a.m. EST), following a two minute delay due to upper level winds, from historic Vandenberg AFB near Los Angeles. “And lift-off of the Delta 2 rocket with SMAP, making global observations of soil moisture for climate forecasting,” NASA Launch Commentator George H. Diller exclaimed as flames and exhaust ignited from the rocket.
The Delta’s core main engine and three rocket boosters pushed the white and blue rocket higher as it soared toward the south and out over the Pacific waters. Viewers near the launch sight trailed with their eyes the 400-foot golden flame over the black night sky.
Fifty-seven minutes after Delta II left Earth’s soil, SMAP separated from the rockets upper stage and quickly began to move away. A television camera on the upper stage captured the 2,332-pound spacecraft separate 424 miles over an area northeast of Madagascar.
“I just can’t say enough about the team that we have,” NASA Delta II Launch Manager Tim Dunn said following the successful lift-off. “We had zero launch vehicle problems on Delta II. We had zero spacecraft problems.”
“We’re in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now,” Dunn exclaimed after separation. “Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn’t be happier.” Over the next few days, mission engineers and controllers will deploy SMAP radar boom and unfurl the massive circular radar dish. The release of the first SMAP soil moisture data is expected in nine months.
The Delta’s third stage then maneuvered to a lower orbit forty minutes later and began to deploy four CubeSats — satellites designed and built by universities which act like experiments to learn more about Earth and the space around us. The third stage will eventually be maneuvered so that it reenters earths atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.