How’s the Weather Down There?

By Lucas Cohen, Marine Biology, 2019

At 1:42 pm EST on January 17th, NOAA’s Jason-3 satellite left earth strapped aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, primed to uncover global patterns in sea level rise and relay critical climate-relevant data to researchers at NOAA, NASA, and the French space agency, CNES.

Jason-3 is the latest of several high-tech satellites launched to produce accurate and precise measurements of global sea levels. In its early orbit phase, Jason-3 trailed behind its direct predecessor, Jason-2, to facilitate calibration of its instruments in preparation for reaching its final orbit on February 13th. Drifting approximately 830 miles above the surface of the earth, Jason-3 and its on-board radar altimeter will be capable of estimating variations in sea level to the nearest inch.

NOAA and other organizations hope to use the data that Jason-3 collects for a number of applications. Sea level measurements can be used to assess both the speed and direction of ocean currents, effectively allowing researchers to produce forecasts predicting the scale and intensity of oceanic phenomena like wave patterns and El Niño or La Niña events, as well as corresponding changes in global climate.

Jason-3’s launch was also notable as SpaceX’s first attempt to land a stage-one Falcon 9 rocket on a floating ocean platform — an attempt that ended explosively when a lock mechanism in one of the rocket’s legs failed to perform its crucial task. During repairs following what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called the rocket’s “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” the drone ship was dubbed “Just Read the Instructions.”

An integral part of ongoing efforts by NOAA and its associates to understand and ultimately mitigate the effects of climate change, Jason-3 is set to provide accurate, up-to-date information about global sea levels and better our understanding of how human activity is shaping the world.

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