Falcon 9 Launches European-U.S. Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich Environmental Satellite

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean observation satellite lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:17 a.m. PST (12:17 p.m. EST) Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Credits: NASA TV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared off the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday carrying an European-U.S. environmental satellite designed to measure global sea levels.

The booster lifted off under clear skies from the Space lLaunch Complex 4E with the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite at 9:17 a.m. PST. The spacecraft, which is the size of a small pickup truck, successfully deployed in orbit and unfolded its solar arrays after separating from the Falcon 9’s second stage.

Falcon 9’s first stage made a successful landing back at Space Launch Complex 4E. The booster created a loud sonic boom that rang out across the sprawling U.S. Air Force Base.

Data returned by Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will be added to a nearly 30-year continuous dataset on sea levels collected by American and European satellites. The data will provide detailed information on large-scale weather currents that will assist with ship navigation near coastlines and help to improve weather forecasting.

The spacecraft is expected to function for about five years. An identical satellite will be launched to replace it in 2025.

The spacecraft honors Michael Freilich, the former director of NASA’s Earth Science Division who passed away on Aug. 5, 2020. Freilich was a leading advocate of observing the oceans from space. His close family and friends attended the launch.

“Mike helped ensure NASA was a steadfast partner with scientists and space agencies worldwide, and his love of oceanography and Earth science helped us improve understanding of our beautiful planet,” added Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “This satellite so graciously named for him by our European partners will carry out the critical work Mike so believed in – adding to a legacy of crucial data about our oceans and paying it forward for the benefit of future generations.”

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) partnered to develop Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich. The spacecraft is part of a family of Sentinel environmental missions being developed under the European Commission’s Copernicus program.

“This mission is the very essence of partnership, precision, and incredible long-term focus,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission. “Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich not only provides a critical measurement, it is essential for continuing this historic multi-decadal sea level record.”

Other partners in the mission include the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT),. The European Commission provided funding and the French space agency CNES contributed technical support.

“The data from this satellite, which is so critical for climate monitoring and weather forecasting, will be of unprecedented accuracy,” said EUMETSAT Director-General Alain Ratier. “These data, which can only be obtained by measurements from space, will bring a wide range of benefits to people around the globe, from safer ocean travel to more precise prediction of hurricane paths, from greater understanding of sea level rise to more accurate seasonal weather forecasts, and so much more.”

JPL contributed three science instruments to the spacecraft: the Advanced Microwave Radiometer for Climate, the Global Navigation Satellite System – Radio Occultation, and the Laser Retroreflector Array.

NASA also provided launch services, ground systems supporting operation of the NASA science instruments, the science data processors for two of these instruments, and support for the U.S. component of the international Ocean Surface Topography Science Team.

U.S.-European cooperation in studying the oceans dates back nearly 30 years. The TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, which was a joint venture between NASA and CNES, began measuring sea levels in 1992. That mission was followed by Jason-1 in 2001, OSTM/Jason-2 in 2008, and Jason-3 in 2016.