NASA successfully launched the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite into Earth orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission is a collaborative effort between NASA and the French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) – with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the UK Space Agency – that will survey water on more than 90% of the planet’s surface.
The satellite will measure the height of water in Earth’s freshwater bodies and the ocean, providing insights into how the ocean influences climate change; how a warming world affects lakes, rivers, and reservoirs; and how communities can better prepare for disasters, like floods.
Here are five ways that SWOT will change what we know about water on Earth:
1. SWOT will survey nearly all water on Earth’s surface for the first time.
Water is essential for life on this planet. But it also plays a critical role in storing and moving much of the excess heat and carbon trapped in Earth’s atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions. It influences our weather and climate as well. SWOT will help researchers track Earth’s water budget – where the water is today, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going to be tomorrow. This is key to understanding how water resources are changing, what impact those changes will have on local environments, and how the ocean reacts to and influences climate change.
2. SWOT will see Earth’s water in higher definition than ever before.
The spacecraft’s science instruments will view the planet’s freshwater bodies and the ocean with unprecedented clarity. SWOT will be able to collect data on ocean features less than 60 miles (100 kilometers) across, helping to improve researchers’ understanding of the ocean’s role in climate change. Earth’s seas have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers think that short-lived ocean features, such as fronts and eddies, absorb a lot of that heat – and the extra carbon that produced it.
By providing a high-definition view of freshwater bodies, SWOT will help generate a much more complete picture of Earth’s water budget. Many big rivers remain a mystery to researchers, who can’t outfit them with monitoring instruments for various reasons, including inaccessibility. The spacecraft’s instruments will observe the entire length of nearly all rivers wider than 330 feet (100 meters), viewing them in three dimensions for the first time. Likewise, where ground and satellite technologies currently provide data on only a few thousand of the world’s largest lakes, SWOT will expand that number to over a million lakes larger than 15 acres (62,500 square meters).
The SWOT mission will collect information on the height of water in Earth’s lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and oceans. Credit: NASA/<span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>JPL-Caltech/CNES/Thales Alenia Space
3. The satellite will address some of the most pressing climate change questions of our time.
An important part of predicting our future climate is determining at what point the ocean slows down the absorption of excess heat trapped in the atmosphere and starts releasing it back into the air, where it could accelerate global warming. SWOT will provide crucial information about this global ocean-atmosphere heat exchange, enabling researchers to test and improve climate forecasts. In addition, the satellite will help fill gaps in researchers’ picture of how sea level is changing along coastlines, offering insights that can then be used to improve computer models for sea level rise projections and the forecasting of coastal floods.
4. SWOT data will be used to inform decisions about our daily lives.
Climate change is also accelerating Earth’s water cycle, leading to more volatile precipitation patterns, including torrential downpours and extreme droughts. Some communities around the world will thus experience floods while others suffer droughts. SWOT data will be used to monitor drought conditions in lakes and improve flood forecasts for rivers, providing essential information to water management agencies, disaster preparedness agencies, universities, civil engineers, and others who need to track water in their local areas.
5. This mission is paving the way for future NASA Earth missions while also building on a long-standing international partnership.
With its innovative technology and commitment to engaging a diverse community of people who plan to use the mission’s data, SWOT is laying a path for future Earth-observing missions. Measurements from SWOT – and the tools to support researchers in analyzing the information – will be free and accessible. This will help to foster research and applications activities by a wide range of users, including those who may not usually have the opportunity to access this knowledge.
Such an ambitious mission is possible because of a decades-long collaboration between NASA and CNES that started in the 1980s to monitor Earth’s ocean. This partnership pioneered the use of a space-based instrument called an altimeter to study sea level with the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite in 1992. The NASA-CNES partnership has continued uninterrupted for three decades and has expanded to encompass work with other agencies, including the CSA and the UK Space Agency for SWOT, as well as ESA (European Space Agency), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, and the European Commission for the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite, which launched in November 2020.
More About the Mission
SWOT is being jointly developed by NASA and CNES, with contributions from the CSA and the UK Space Agency. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, leads the U.S. component of the project. For the flight system payload, NASA is providing the Ka-band Radar Interferometer (KaRIn) instrument, a GPS science receiver, a laser retroreflector, a two-beam microwave radiometer, and NASA instrument operations. CNES is providing the Doppler Orbitography and Radioposition Integrated by Satellite (DORIS) system, the dual frequency Poseidon altimeter (developed by Thales Alenia Space), the KaRIn radio-frequency subsystem (together with Thales Alenia Space and with support from the UK Space Agency), the satellite platform, and ground control segment. CSA is providing the KaRIn high-power transmitter assembly. NASA is providing the launch vehicle and associated launch services.
Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight
In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.
Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.
The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.
“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”
At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.
“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”
He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.
“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”
To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.
Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.
Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes
Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms
An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.
Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.
Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.
Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de
Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists
Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.
“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.
“What is the origin of the universe?”
And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.
The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.
This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.
The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.
Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.
Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.
Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.
Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.
It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.
Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):
Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.
Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.
Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.
*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.
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