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NASA Twin Satellites Arrive at Vandenberg AFB Ahead of Spring Launch

Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellites will continue the climate data mission of their predecessors

A crate containing one of the twin GRACE-FO satellites is offloaded from an cargo plane at  Vandenberg Air Force Base following a transcontinental flight from Germany. Click to view larger
A crate containing one of the twin GRACE-FO satellites is offloaded from an cargo plane at Vandenberg Air Force Base following a transcontinental flight from Germany.  (U.S. Air Force photo)

A pair of NASA satellites landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base earlier this month, putting them one step closer to arriving in space to start collecting data about the planet.

The twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, dubbed GRACE-FO, arrived Dec. 12 at Vandenberg’s airfield aboard a cargo plane that left Munich, Germany on Dec. 11.

"With this milestone, we are now in position to launch GRACE Follow-On and restart the valuable observations and science that ceased in mid-2017 with the end of the GRACE science mission," said Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and lead for the GRACE Follow-On science team.

The U.S./German spacecraft will undergo processing to get ready for launch in the spring aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base.

The GRACE-FO craft will head to space aboard a rideshare mission — five Iridium Next satellites also will be tucked in the Falcon’s nosecone for the flight.

Iridium Chief Executive Officer Matt Desch noted the arrival of his future satellites’ fellow riders on his Twitter page.

“Our rideshare partner for Iridium-6. Great working relationship; we're looking forward to flying together,” Desch said on Twitter.

Iridium Next’s fourth mission launched Friday from the base at sunset, creating a dramatic spectacle many people mistook for an unidentified flying object.

The GRACE twins will extend an Earth climate data record started by what scientists call an extremely successful predecessor during a pioneering mission.

The original GRACE completed its science mission in October after more than 15 years in orbit following an age-related battery issue involving GRACE-2, NASA officials said. Both satellites must operate for the science mission to occur.

While similar to their predecessor GRACE satellites, the new spacecraft include advancements designed to improve reliability and mission operations, officials said.

A cargo plane containing the twin GRACE-FO satellites lands at  Vandenberg Air Force Base in mid-December. Launch of the satellites is planned for spring. Click to view larger
A cargo plane containing the twin GRACE-FO satellites lands at Vandenberg Air Force Base in mid-December. Launch of the satellites is planned for spring.  (U.S. Air Force photo)

Once in orbit and operational, GRACE-FO, which is designed to operate for at least five years, will continue to track differences in the distribution of liquid water, ice and land masses by measuring changes in Earth's gravity field every 30 days.

The GRACE mission has delivered “paradigm-shifting insights” into the interactions of Earth’s oceans, atmosphere and lands, according to Byron Tapley, GRACE principal investigator from the University of Texas at Austin

"It has advanced our understanding of the contribution of polar ice melt to global sea level rise and the amount of atmospheric heat absorbed by the ocean,” Tabley said. “Recent applications include monitoring and managing global water resources used for consumption, agriculture and industry; and assessing flood and earthquake hazards.”

The information helps show where global groundwater resources may be shrinking or growing and where dry soils are contributing to drought, NASA officials said.

GRACE-FO is a partnership between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, with participation by the German Aerospace Center.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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