There’s a new eye in the sky above the Great Lakes.
The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite which launched on Friday, Dec. 16 is dedicated to observing surface water across the Earth.
Scientists involved in the international mission — which is led by NASA and the French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales — say the new satellite promises to produce a treasure trove of data on the Great Lakes, which hold 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water.
The satellite will produce high resolution maps and help scientists understand a changing climate by measuring the height of water lakes, rivers, reservoirs and oceans.
“This satellite will change our understanding of the Great Lakes,” said Sam Kelly, a University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) professor who is using a NASA grant to focus on Great Lakes current mapping.
“The technology is right at the resolution needed to measure their surface currents, which has never been done at this scale before,” Kelly said. “That could tell us where harmful algal blooms may show up, where pollution is going, where fish larvae are moving through the lakes.”
“There are a lot of practical things we can learn by knowing more about how surface currents work in the Great Lakes.”
According to NASA, the SWOT mission is tasked with tracking Earth’s “water budget.”
Knowing where water is today, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going to be tomorrow “is critical to understanding how the planet’s water resources are changing and the impact those changes have on the local environment,” the agency said.
NASA says the SWOT data will be used to monitor drought conditions and improve flood forecasts. It can provide information to water management agencies, disaster preparedness agencies, universities, civil engineers and others who track water in local areas.
Maritime industries will be able to get measurements of water levels along rivers, as well as ocean conditions such as tides, currents and storm surges.
It should be able to make out currents and eddies less than 13 miles (21 kilometers) across, as well as areas of the ocean where water masses of varying temperatures merge.
NASA’s current fleet of nearly 30 Earth-observing satellites cannot make out such slight features. And while these older satellites can map the extent of lakes and rivers, their measurements are not as detailed. The satellite will also reveal the location and speed of rising sea levels and the shift of coastlines, which is key to saving lives and property.
It will cover the globe between the Arctic and Antarctica at least once every three weeks as it orbits more than 550 miles (890 kilometers) high.
The mission is expected to last three years.
“It’s going to provide a crazy amount of information for water scientists,” Kelly said.
NASA and the French Space Agency collaborated on the $1.2 billion SWOT project — some 20 years in the making — with Britain and Canada chipping in.
The satellite launched Friday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. It will undergo six months of testing before its data becomes publicly accessible.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report
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