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SWOT – Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite launch

A UK-backed satellite mission, which will observe huge swathes of ocean and surface water in unprecedented detail, has launched into space. The launch took place at Vandenberg, California, on Friday 16th December 2022.

SWOT will use a revolutionary radar instrument, named KaRIn, to survey at least 90% of the Earth’s surface, measuring and monitoring changes in the ocean, lakes, reservoirs, rivers and wetlands, to produce data that will help improve our understanding of climate change, as well as predict and mediate flood risks around the world.

SWOT will be able to ‘see’ such ocean features as fronts and eddies that are too small for current space-based instruments to detect, which will help improve researchers’ understanding of the ocean’s role in climate change.

The mission has been jointly developed by NASA and the French Space Agency, Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), with contributions from the UK Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

UK scientists are leading the international effort to assess and exploit SWOT data over areas with very high tidal ranges and fast currents. The UK Space Agency partnered with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), between them, investing £375,000 in the SWOT-UK science research project which will focus on SWOT data covering the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary area.

SWOT Mission overview. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/Thales Alenia Space

SWOT-UK project leadership

The SWOT-UK project is led by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) with the University of Bristol and Bangor University to evaluate the SWOT data over British waters. The Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary will be observed once a day during a 3-month period from April to June 2023 to provide unprecedented information from space on water level changes in this dynamic coastal environment.

Professor Christine Gommenginger, Principal Scientist in Satellite Oceanography at NOC, has over 20 years’ experience in measuring sea level with altimetry and co-leads SWOT-UK.

Prof. Christine Gommenginger, said:

“For the first time, SWOT will produce detailed images of water levels that will help understand the complex processes that connect sea level over the ocean and inland waters. One objective of SWOT-UK is to demonstrate how satellite Earth observation data can be used with in situ instruments and numerical models to answer important questions for science and society.”

When the data are returned in 2023, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) will work with the Ocean University of China to identify and track eddies, looking specifically at how the Mid-Atlantic Ridge impacts their progression across the South Atlantic and how this affects the north–south transport of heat by the ocean.

NCEO Remote Sensing Oceanographer at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Dr Graham Quartly, said:
“The mission will help give us valuable insight into the flow of warm salty water within the Atlantic and improve our understanding of factors affecting sea level rise.  This will help us improve models of predicted future changes, so that society can be better prepared.”

NCEO’s role in SWOT-UK

The National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) supported the UK Space Agency and NERC to formulate the call for the SWOT-UK project and review proposals, to help ensure there was appropriate UK representation on the SWOT International Science Team. NCEO look forward to continuing our work with the mission post-launch and as data are received.

This illustration depicts the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite with solar arrays fully deployed. Image Credit: CNES