SpaceX is about to launch 2 NASA satellites into orbit

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Unlike most Earth-observation satellites, GRACE-FO won't "use imagers [to] collect light reflected from the surface or the atmosphere", said David Jarrett, GRACE-FO program executive, said at a news conference Monday (May 21).

This first-stage booster has flown once before, a little more than four months ago when it launched the Zuma mission for the U.S. government-a satellite or spacecraft that was apparently lost in space after it failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. The second package, consisting of a pair of satellites called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO, is a collaboration of NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

There was no attempt to recover it this time.

On liftoff, the Falcon 9 first-stage engines will burn for approximately 2 minutes and 45 seconds before shutting down at main engine cutoff (MECO). The gravity produced by the Earth's mass includes a component contributed by water, regardless of what state it may be in, like vapor, solid or liquid. Viewers will be able to watch the lift off and separation of the satellites, but SpaceX will not be recovering this older booster as it shifts its focus to the final version of its workhorse rocket.

He said SpaceX had tried but failed to catch the payload fairing, a nose cone used to protect the rocket, as it plunged into the ocean.

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"Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth - for health, for agriculture, for maintaining our way of living", said Michael Watkins, GRACE-FO science lead and director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The GRACE-FO mission is scheduled to last five years, but seeing as how the original satellites, GRACE, were scheduled for that same mission duration, it's likely this duo will be in orbit taking measurements for a long time to come. Then the lower, leading satellite will be raised into the same orbit as the higher, trailing satellite. SpaceX has signed up for a total of eight Iridium NEXT launches with the aim of putting 75 new satellites into orbit. If needed, an additional launch opportunity is available on Wednesday, May 23.

The GRACE-FO mission is a joint effort of NASA and GFZ. The pair measure Earth's gravity field by detecting minute changes (down to a micron level) in the distance between the spacecraft caused by anomalies in gravity.

NASA has spent $430 million on the mission, and Germany has spent about $91 million.

The GRACE-FO spacecraft are equipped with laser retroreflectors that allow ground stations to accurately measure their orbits, further improving the accuracy of the data.

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