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Rendering of Aquarius Satellite
Aquarius, NASA’s ocean-watching  satellite launched into space Friday morning on a mission to fill critical gaps in understanding how the Earth’s oceans affect the planet’s climate. The Aquarius device achieved orbit aboard an Argentine-built satellite, called SAC-D atop a  Delta II rocket, built by Boeing.  The SAC-D spacecraft carrying Aquarius was built by Argentina’s space agency, CONAE. Brazil, Canada, France, and Italy also contributed to the $400 million mission.

Two previous Earth-watching NASA craft crashed after launching from the same site, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In March, NASA’s Glory climate satellite splashed into the South Pacific when its nose cone covering failed to detach. In 2009, the agency’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory suffered the same fate, for the same reason. Both launch failures occurred aboard Taurus rockets, made by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles.

Circling pole-to-pole about 400 miles above the Earth, the device’s three sensors are very sensitive. Aquarius senses salinity by bouncing microwaves off the ocean’s surface. Mapping ocean salinity will provide vital clues to ocean circulation patterns while simultaneously mapping rainfall and evaporation. As rain falls over the ocean, salinity decreases; evaporation increases it.

Buoys and other Earth-bound sensors have already painted a picture of rapidly changing ocean salinity patterns. These altered rainfall and evaporation patterns are “changing the structure of the ocean, which can have impacts on fisheries and ultimately, climate.

In addition to Aquarius, the satellite carries seven other cameras and sensors to monitor forest fires, search for space debris, and make measurements of sea ice. (Wash Post, 6/11/2011)