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Sentinel-6 boosted into orbit Saturday morning in textbook launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base
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Sentinel-6 boosted into orbit Saturday morning in textbook launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base

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U.S.-European satellite Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich was boosted into orbit Saturday morning in a textbook launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The launch went off on schedule at 9:17 a.m., and 3 minutes later the rumble from the 1.7 million pounds of thrust produced by the first stage’s nine Merlin 1 engines washed over Santa Maria.

That was followed about 8 minutes later by twin sonic booms as the first stage went subsonic on its way back to a picture perfect landing right next to the SLC-4 launch pad.

Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, the first NASA-European Space Agency partnership in the field of Earth science, will make the most accurate measurements of global sea level yet, which an ESA spokesman said is a prime indicator of global warming.

The satellite is the first of two identical satellites planned for launch into Earth orbit, with the second — Sentinel-6B — scheduled for launch five years from now, to continue sea level observations for at least the next decade, a NASA spokesman said.

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A screen capture from today's NASA stream of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base shows the first stage booster returning to a picture-perfect landing next to the launch pad minutes after liftoff.

“The Western Range is excited to provide the opportunity for this unique launch,” said Col. Anthony Mastalir, 30th Space Wing commander who was the space launch commander for the mission.

“Working together with NASA and SpaceX to provide a successful launch takes planning and teamwork and I am proud of the work my 30th Space Wing members have done today," Mastalir said.

“The technology from this satellite will provide critical data for scientific research and lay the framework for future generations to study the ocean,” he added.

Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich is named in honor of the former director of NASA's Earth Science Division, who was instrumental in advancing space-based ocean measurements and encouraging ESA to collaborate more with NASA.

The satellite contains cutting-edge instruments able to capture sea surface height with unprecedented accuracy, adding to space-based measurements going back almost 30 years.

“This is an extremely important parameter for climate monitoring,” said Josef Aschbacher, the European Space Agency's director of Earth observation. “We know that sea level is rising.”

The question is, how much and how quickly is it rising, because billions of people living in coastal areas around the planet are at risk in the coming decades as melting polar ice and ocean expansion caused by warming push waters ever higher up the shore.

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A screen capture from today's NASA stream of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite as the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket following its launch from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

Some studies estimate the world’s oceans will rise by at least 2 feet by the end of the century, hitting low-lying regions from Bangladesh to California.

Aschbacher said measurements dating back to the 1990s show average sea levels rising first by about 0.12 inches per year, but in the past couple of years the annual rate was almost 0.2 inches.

While measurements are also taken at ground level, in harbors and other coastal areas, they don’t provide the same precise uniform standard as a single satellite sweeping the entire globe every 10 days, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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