Image above: The NPP spacecraft stands atop the Delta II rocket that will lift it into Earth orbit. Photo credit: NASA/Don Kososka, VAFB
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Image above: The Delta II rocket stands at Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., soon after being assembled. The NPP satellite and payload fairing have not been attached to the rocket yet in this photo. Photo credit: NASA/VAFB
› Larger image A technological trailblazer is poised to lift off from a California launch pad to take a place in space to show us what is happening on Earth. Known as the NPP, for National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, the two-ton spacecraft is destined for an orbit 512 miles above the planet where it will be able to see every part of the Earth.
Because it is going into a polar orbit crossing both the north and south poles while the world spins beneath it, the NPP mission will launch from NASA's Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
NPP has two goals, according to James Gleason, NPP project scientist.
"One is to get the data for the weather forecasts, environmental observations and take a whole suite of observations that continue our satellite data records which span from measuring aerosols, you know, dust particles in the atmosphere, how have they changed over the past decade?," Gleason said. "Is the ground greener or browner over time? Has the sea surface temperature changed? Has the ozone changed? These are all data sets that we have that we have multi-decades sets of data sets and we just want to keep adding to that so we can answer the question, is the climate changing?"
Members of NASA's Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center, have been working at Vandenberg to get the spacecraft ready to launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.
"We began build-up of the vehicle in July of this year, erecting first stage, the nine solid rocket motors, the second stage, putting the payload fairing into the mobile service tower," NASA Launch Director Tim Dunn said.
Once in orbit, the NPP spacecraft is to scan the world with five instruments that track their development through the sensors used on previous Earth-observation missions.
"NPP is a continuation of the earth orbiting satellite systems," Gleason said. "For weather forecasting and for climate predictions, you need to have continuous observations. So what NPP does is continue the data record started by the NASA EOS satellites and improves on the instruments that are used for numerical weather forecasting from the current series of NOAA satellites."
Taking five sensors into orbit lets the spacecraft gather information about a range of aspects of the Earth.
"NPP data will be used by virtually all of the national weather services for all the nations of the world," Gleason said. "And then there are the scientific users who are trying to understand the individual phenomena both at home and abroad."
The instrumentation also requires extra care from the launch team in the time leading up to liftoff.
"Every mission has its own set of challenges, you know, what's challenging about NPP is the fact we have five instruments," said Bruce Reid, NASA's mission manager for NPP. "Some spacecraft have one instrument. And every mission has to go through environmental testing, so now you have to go through environmental testing with five different instruments, which all carry their own set of requirements and restrictions."
With months of preparations behind them, the launch teams will assemble on launch day expecting the payoff of a successful liftoff to begin the NPP's five-year mission.
"By the time you get there on launch day, it's kind of like you've planned a trip and you've packed for the trip and all you have left to do is gas and go," said Bruce Reid, "So that's what we do on launch day, we load the rocket with fuel and liquid oxygen and then we do our final avionics and electrical checks and we push the button and we sit on the edge of our seats."