Image: Aquarius launch
Bill Ingalls  /  NASA via AP
A Delta 2 rocket launches with the Aquarius/SAC-D payload from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Friday. The rocket carried an Earth-observing satellite designed to measure the saltiness of the ocean from space.
updated 6/10/2011 11:56:25 AM ET 2011-06-10T15:56:25

NASA launched a new international satellite mission Friday that will measure the ocean's saltiness from hundreds of miles above Earth.

The Aquarius/SAC-D satellite soared into space at 7:20 a.m. PDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California atop an unmanned Delta 2 rocket. The launch was originally scheduled for Thursday morning, but kinks in the rocket's flight software caused a one-day delay.

Once it settles into orbit, NASA's Aquarius instrument will record salt levels in oceans around the world with unprecedented precision for the next three years. This information should help researchers better understand global patterns of precipitation, evaporation and ocean circulation — key drivers of Earth's climate.

"In this mission, NASA is really ready to take an important science and technological leap forward," Gary Lagerloef, Aquarius principal investigator at Earth and Space Research in Seattle, said in a prelaunch briefing Tuesday.

Mapping the ocean's salt
The $400 million Aquarius mission will scan Earth's oceans continuously from 408 miles up, creating a global salinity map every seven days.

NASA has spent $287 million for its portion of the mission, which is a partnership between the U.S. and Argentina space agencies with the countries of Brazil, Canada, France and Italy also participating.

Aquarius is one of eight scientific payloads aboard the SAC-D spacecraft. The other instruments will observe fires and volcanoes, map sea ice and collect a wide range of other environmental data.

Aquarius is so sensitive that it can detect saltiness differences of just two parts per 1,000 — the equivalent of one-eighth teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water, researchers said.

Even subtle salinity differences can have a big impact on ocean temperature and circulation, which themselves influence Earth's climate. So mapping out ocean saltiness precisely should help scientists come up with better climate models, researchers said.

The Aquarius/SAC-D mission joins 13 other NASA satellite missions dedicated to studying Earth from above. But its salt-measuring skills will bring a new capability to the fleet.

"The addition of Aquarius to this suite of instruments helps create a more complete picture of our oceans and the impact on the Earth's climate," said Eric Ianson, program executive with NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

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Good news from the launch pad
Today's successful liftoff must have come as a relief for NASA, which recently lost two Earth-observing satellites to launch failures. In 2009, the $273 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed into the ocean near Antarctica. And in March of this year, the $424 million Glory climate satellite plunged into the Pacific.

Both of those launches used Taurus rockets, provided by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. In both cases, the rocket's nose-cone fairing — a shell-like covering that protects its satellite payload — failed to open as designed.

Those two failures played no part in going with United Launch Alliance for Aquarius/SAC-D. The decision to use a Delta 2 was made about nine years ago, researchers said.

The Aquarius/SAC-D mission is a collaboration between NASA and Argentina's space agency, Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE). CONAE built SAC-D, which stands for Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas-D.

You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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