Explained: What is the Sentinel-6 satellite and why is it important?

Data from satellites such as Sentinel-6 help scientists foresee the effects of the changing oceans on the climate. 

The Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite, designed to monitor oceans, was launched from the Vandenberg Air Force base in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on November 21.

This is a part of the next mission dedicated to measuring changes in the global sea level. Other satellites that have been launched since 1992 to track changes in the oceans on a global scale include the TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 and OSTN/Jason-2, among others.

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite has been named after Dr. Michael Freilich, who was the Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division from 2006-2019 and passed away in August this year.

What is the mission?

The mission, called the Jason Continuity of Service (Jason-CS) mission, is designed to measure the height of the ocean, which is a key component in understanding how the Earth’s climate is changing. The spacecraft consists of two satellites, one of them launched on Saturday, and the other, called Sentinel-6B, to be launched in 2025.

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It has been developed jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat), the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the EU, with contributions from France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES).

What will the satellite do?

According to NASA, the satellite will ensure the continuity of sea-level observations into the fourth decade and will provide measurements of global sea-level rise.

Since 1992, high-precision satellite altimeters have helped scientists understand how the ocean stores and distributes heat, water and carbon in the climate system.

Essentially, the satellite will send pulses to the Earth’s surface and measure how long they take to return to it, which will help scientists measure the sea surface height. It will also measure water vapour along this path and find its position using GPS and ground-based lasers.

Further, the data it collects will support operational oceanography, by providing improved forecasts of ocean currents, wind and wave conditions. This data will allow improvements in both short-term forecasting for weather predictions in the two-to-four-week range (hurricane intensity predictions), and long-term forecasting, for instance for seasonal conditions like El Niño and La Niña.

Why is it important to measure the height of the ocean?

As per NASA, it is possible to observe the height of the oceans on a global scale and monitor critical changes in ocean currents and heat storage only from space. Data from satellites such as Sentinel-6 help scientists foresee the effects of the changing oceans on the climate.

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Further, in order to measure and track changes in the oceanic heat budget, scientists need to know the ocean currents and heat storage of the oceans, which can be determined from the height of the sea surface.

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