Launched on May 4, 2002, the satellite has six different Earth-observing instruments on board and is named for the large amount of information it gathers about water on Earth. The water variables being measured include almost all elements of the water cycle: liquid, solid, and vapor forms. The data measures evaporation from the oceans, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover on the land and ice. Additional variables being measured include radiative energy fluxes, aerosols, vegetation cover on the land, phytoplankton, and dissolved organic matter in the oceans, as well as air, land, and water temperatures.
The satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a Delta II rocket. Aqua is on a Sun-synchronous orbit. It has a mass of about 2,850 kilograms (6,300 lb.), plus propellant of about 230 kilograms (510 lb.) (at launch). Stowed, the satellite is 2.68 m x 2.49 m x 6.49 m. Deployed; Aqua is 4.81 m x 16.70 m x 8.04 m. That’s roughly the size of a cozy 1 bedroom apartment!
Aqua was the first member launched of a group of satellites termed the Afternoon Constellation, or sometimes the A-Train. The second member to be launched was Aura, in July 2004, the third member was PARASOL (a French satellite), in December 2004, and the fourth and fifth members are CloudSat and CALIPSO, in May 2006.
Aqua carries six instruments for studies of water on the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere.
Claire Parkinson is a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she has worked since July 1978. She’s the Project Scientist with the Aqua satellite mission. For much of that time, her research has centered on satellite data analysis of sea ice and the role of sea ice in the global climate system.
Claire has served on the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Polar Meteorology and Oceanography and the same society’s Committee on the History of Atmospheric Sciences. She has served as an Associate Editor of the International Glaciological Society’s Annals of Glaciology and as a Scientific Editor of the Journal of Glaciology. She has also served on the Advisory Panel on Climate and Global Change for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and on the Climate Research Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. She is currently a science adviser for the Earth & Sky radio program and for Soundprint Media Center’s radio series on Explaining Space Science. Claire has a B.A. in mathematics from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she was elected to both Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi, and a Ph.D. in climatology from Ohio State University.
Dr. Parkinson talked more about being able to ‘see the science’ happening inside a hurricane through Aqua’s satellite images:
“But because of the different types of instruments we’ve got on Aqua we can also see other things highlighted. For instance, the eye wall and rain bands in a hurricane get highlighted with certain channels from the AMSR-E instrument. And also, after a hurricane passes by, the sea surface temperatures that the AMSR-E instrument records actually sometimes show what’s called the ‘cold wake’, where the sea surface temperatures have dropped. The cold wake forms because as the hurricane goes by, it churns up the water, bringing up some colder water from beneath, and that churning up of the water ends up very visible from the satellite data in terms of revealing the cooling of the sea surface temperatures. Also, the AIRS instrument can get us further information about the hurricanes by getting us things like the cloud top temperature and pressure.
The Aqua data are helping so many people in so many ways, and it’s a wonderful honor and privilege to be able to be a prime player in a mission that is doing so much.”