SpaceX Flies Satellites for Iridium, NASA in 10th Launch of 2018

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After release, the space-facing GRACE-FO satellite began pushing up into a higher, slower orbit, while the Earth-facing satellite started slipping down into a lower, faster orbit.

A few minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9 first stage (incidentally, the one that launched the lost Zuma satellite in January) will detach and burn up.

In this photo provided by NASA, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen with the NASA/German Research Centre for Geosciences GRACE Follow-On spacecraft and onboard, Monday, May 21, 2018, at Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The two satellites, about the size of a sports vehicle, will fly in tandem 137 miles apart in a 305-mile orbit around Earth's poles.

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When water or ice fills an area - such as a coastline or river basin - the liquid slightly increases that area's mass. Objects with more mass have a stronger gravitational pull, so measuring these variations in gravity gives NASA data on phenomena like sea-level rise, glacial retreat, drought, and changes in the size of underground aquifers.

The research satellites are part of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO, mission.

Iridium and the GRACE-FO team originally planned to launch today's satellites on separate Dnepr missions, but had to find another ride when Russian Federation halted missions on the converted intercontinental ballistic missile. SpaceX's Block 5 Falcon 9, which had its first flight 11 days ago carrying the Bangabandhu-1 telecom satellite, is designed for 10 reflights with the same booster and no refurbishment. This boat will seek to "catch" the fairing before it falls into the ocean. The May 22 launch grows the constellation to 55 Iridium Next satellites in orbit. The full constellation is to consist of 66 operational satellites, nine in-orbit spares and six ground spares.

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"GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves and the trends which are taking place over the last 10 or 15 years", Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist, told a pre-launch press conference.

If you want to watch the launch live you can do so via the YouTube window embedded above. 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.

The GRACE-FO spacecraft are equipped with laser retroreflectors that allow ground stations to accurately measure their orbits, further improving the accuracy of the data.

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The GRACE-FO satellites were assembled by Airbus Defence and Space in Germany.

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