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Rocket blasts off with NASA satellite to help track climate change

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An unmanned Delta 2 rocket was launched from California on Saturday, carrying with it a NASA satellite that will help measure the amount of water in Earth’s soil, vital information that will aid in forecasting the weather and tracking climate change.

The tiny amount of soil moisture is linked with the planet’s overall environmental systems, including its water, energy and carbon cycles. It also indicates whether certain regions are affected with extreme flooding or drought.

According to NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory lead scientist Dara Entekhabi, “It’s the metabolism of the system.”

The Delta 2 rocket is measured at 127 feet (39 metres), built and flown by United Launch Alliance. A live NASA TV broadcast showed that the rocket blasted off at 6:22 a.m. PST/1422 GMT from Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is located on California’s central coast.

The rocket launching was delayed a day due to high winds and a second day to conduct minor repairs on the rocket’s insulation.

Resting on top of the rocket was NASA’s 2,100-pound (950 kg) SMAP, which will spend at least three years orbiting Earth to measure the amount of water in the top 2 inches of the planet’s soil.

“Overall, soil moisture accounts for less than 1 percent of the planet’s total water reservoir, with 97 percent in the planet’s oceans and nearly all of the rest locked in ice”, said Entekhabi, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At present, scientists are largely dependent on computer models to account for the Earth’s soil moisture.

But from its orbital perch 426 miles (685 km) above Earth, SMAP has two microwave instruments to collect actual soil moisture measurements everywhere on Earth and update the measurements every two to three days.

Including the launch and three years of operations, the mission is costing NASA $916 million.

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