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Aqua Spacecraft Launched, Ready To Study Earth's Water Cycle


NASA's latest Earth observing satellite, Aqua, successfully launched Saturday morning, May 4, 2002, at 2:55 a.m. PDT. Aqua is dedicated to advancing our understanding of Earth's water cycle and our environment. Launching the Aqua spacecraft marks a major milestone in support of NASA's mission to help us better understand and protect our planet.

The Aqua spacecraft lifted off from the Western Test Range of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a Delta II rocket at 2:55 a.m. PDT. Spacecraft separation occurred at 3:54 a.m. PDT. inserting Aqua into a 438-mile (705-kilometer) orbit. Details on the Aqua Launch.

In the late 1990s, NASA began launching a new generation of research spacecraft specifically designed to study the Earth so that we can better understand and protect our home planet. Called Aqua, the latest addition to NASA's fleet meets a significant milestone in the agency's pursuit to field a constellation of integrated observatories.

One of Aqua's greatest strengths is its ability to gather congruent data with a suite of interrelated instruments. By making observations of specific planetary features and events simultaneously with different instruments, experts can begin to approach scientific questions in terms of "systems" as opposed to independent inquiries.

Aqua is the result of international partnerships. With its successful deployment, the Earth science community will have a major new suite of tools for examining important areas of research such as climate change, weather, the water cycle, and much more.

This high-tech, space-based research observatory is a sibling to another vehicle called Terra, an Earth science satellite launched in December 1999. While embodying significant differences, as siblings they also share many similarities. Both satellites carry several similar instruments, in addition to their own separate suites of advanced hardware. Both satellites were designed to study Earth in systemic ways, with integrated data collection and analysis cornerstones of their design intentions. The satellites follow different but related orbits. Terra makes its observational transits in the morning, while Aqua takes its readings in the afternoon. Satellites like Aqua will help us to better understand and protect our home planet while providing science that will improve life here.


In human terms, water means life. But to Earth scientists around the world, Aqua means top-notch science, and with the exclamation mark of a Delta rocket blazing a trail, NASA's latest Earth observing satellite takes its place on orbit. Home to a suite of powerful instruments for gathering fundamental information about interrelated planetary processes like climate change and the water cycle, Aqua is part of NASA's larger Earth Science Enterprise, a program dedicated to studying our home planet from space.


A Grand Observatory for Studying Our Home

With the launch of the Aqua spacecraft NASA's Earth Science Enterprise gains a powerful suite of tools. Flying at an altitude of 438 miles (705 km), the vehicle carries six advanced instruments designed to study various Earth processes. As part of the mission design, these instruments are specifically tailored to work together as well as separately--in essence embodying the philosophy that if the Earth's processes function in systemic, interrelated ways, the best way to study the planet is with sensors that can correlate their findings.

In fact, this strategy goes beyond the bounds of the Aqua platform alone. As only the latest launch in a series of Earth observing vehicles, Aqua's instrumentation and data collection efforts are all part of a larger effort to study the Earth in systemic terms.


It used to be that scientists pursued specific questions with carefully designed experiments and observations in an effort to uncover a specific answer. But in many fields this paradigm is changing, perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the study of the Earth with remote sensing techniques. More often than ever before experts are designing their explorations of the natural world in ways that utilize systems oriented approaches.

The Aqua satellite perfectly describes this trend. Beyond their planned utility as hardware designed to work together, the six instruments housed by Aqua will also collect information that can be used in conjunction with data gathered by other spacecraft in the Earth Observing fleet.

But what of Aqua itself? The satellite will weigh 6,468 lbs. (2,934 kg) at launch, fully fueled. It will be lifted into space on a two-stage Delta II 7920-10L rocket, equipped with 9 external solid rocket motors.

TRW built Aqua's principal "bus" or spacecraft body. This is the same basic bus that will be used for the used for the upcoming Aura mission. Standardization of spaceflight hardware enables projects with similar and related goals to proceed through their development and fabrication cycles with comparatively streamlined production requirements.

Satellite designers built Aqua to function on orbit for a minimum of six years.


Originally Aqua had a different name. On the drawing boards, NASA referred to it as the EOS-PM platform, an acronym describing its organizational roots and its mission goals. EOS stands for Earth Observing System, a program presently collecting data about our living planet from a growing fleet of satellites on orbit. PM indicates that this new satellite will make measurements in the afternoon, around 1:30. (On the opposite side of the planet, however, it will make measurements at 1:30 in the morning.)

This name is closely related to the Terra satellite's former name. Originally called the EOS-AM platform, Terra's mission goals are related to Aqua, but as the acronym suggests it collects data about the Earth in the morning-close to 10:30. (As you'd expect, Terra will also make nighttime observations at 10:30 on the Earth's opposite sides.)

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