Watch SpaceX deliver NASA’s gravity-sniffing GRACE satellites into orbit today

Terry Joseph
May 25, 2018

SpaceX played the role of carpool driver on Tuesday, ferrying seven satellites into space. So, to obtain information about the distribution of mass below, the GRACE-FO satellites need not look down; instead, they'll only "look" at each other and measure their separation by constantly sending microwave signals back and forth.

After the SpaceX rocket sent off its first payload, GRACE-FO, its second stage continued its climb in order to deploy a series of commercial communications satellites for the Virginia-based company, Iridium.

The Falcon 9 rocket booster previously launched the U.S. Air Force's classified Zuma mission in January.

The second stage will take the payload to about 300 miles up, at which point it will cut off, and about 11 minutes after liftoff the rocket will dip its nose and spin a bit to get the GRACE-FO satellites into position. The Falcon 9's first and second stages will separate seconds later. A ride-share mission for two payloads The five Iridium NEXT satellites on board the Falcon 9 will boost the satellite telephone operator's fleet of upgraded relay stations to 55 following five earlier SpaceX flights that launched 10 satellites at a time.

GRACE-FO, a joint project between NASA and the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences, will use twin satellites the size of small cars to map changes in Earth's water and ice, such as rising sea levels and melting of the polar ice caps.

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This is an unusual launch - the rocket will be making some complicated maneuvers 300 miles up to make sure NASA's satellites are deployed correctly, then it travels the rest of the way to the targeted orbit for the communication satellites. The launch was the sixth one SpaceX completed for the satellite company of eight total it is contracted for. Iridium spent around $3 billion on Iridium Next, purchasing the satellites from Thales Alenia Space in Europe. Two more launches will increase the number to 75, including 66 operational satellites and nine spares.

If you want to watch the launch live you can do so via the YouTube window embedded above. The gravity produced by the Earth's mass includes a component contributed by water, regardless of what state it may be in, like vapor, solid or liquid. When the mass on Earth changes, the distance between them does as well due to the changes in the gravitational pull. GRACE stands for "Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment".

NASA has spent $430 million on the mission, and Germany has spent about $91 million.

The first-ever SpaceX launch from Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex-4 occurred on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013.

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