Podcast: NASA's Aquarius Mission to Fly High Over the Salty Seas

June 2, 2011

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Narrator: Flyin' high above the salty seas. I'm Jane Platt with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The Aquarius mission team is prepping for launch of an instrument that will orbit Earth and measure the salt content of the ocean surface. And what will that tell us? Let's ask Amit Sen, the Project Manager for Aquarius at JPL. Hi, Amit.

Sen: Hi, Jane. It's an exciting event that's coming up, and we have been so excited about this mission because it's all about Earth, the planet that we live on and the planet that we have to maintain and understand. And salt is a key factor that affects deep ocean currents, which transport heat throughout the world's oceans, and that in turn affects our climate. And that's why it's so important internationally for people to find out.

Narrator: And that is involved with such climate patterns as El Nino and La Nina that we're pretty familiar with here on the West Coast.

Sen: That's exactly right, and El Nino and La Nina are pronounced effects that we see lately. And there are some effects that we do not know about. We really do not know or understand the ocean as much as we think we do. And so this exploratory mission is going to only gain us more insight, more knowledge, into the ocean process, the water cycle and the global circulation.

Narrator: And the more we know about our oceans, as you say, the more we understand our climate and climate patterns.

Sen: Exactly. Since the climate patterns are linked to precipitation, and evaporation, and those are linked to the water cycle, that's what we want to understand. As you know, the sun heats the ocean at all times, and the atmosphere touches the top of the ocean all the time, so the evaporation happens from the surface of the ocean. It goes up and it raises, and the trade winds, the winds carry it over land, and the precipitation happens. And then the precipitation goes through runoffs and back into the ocean. The water cycle.

Narrator: And this is the first time that NASA has a mission to study salinity.

Sen: Absolutely. This salinity measuring mission is the first time for NASA. NASA has measured, over the last 25 years, temperature, winds over water, color of the ocean, but they have not measured one parameter that has largely been missing--the salt content of the ocean and the transport factor. The missing link.

Narrator: And this is an international venture.....

Sen: It is an international venture, and along with the U.S, there are five other international partners. Argentina, the Argentine space agency, the Brazilians, they have a Brazilian space agency, the Canadian space agency, the Italian space agency, and the French space agency. All of them, together with us-six international groups, participate in this mission, bringing in various instruments. NASA brings in the prime instrument, which measures sea surface salinity. The rest of the the observations are from different countries maintaining also, from their country's point of interest, their natural and hazardous information that they want to see from space.

Narrator: And just in really layperson terms, the instrument measures salinity in the ocean...how?

Sen: OK, the instrument is basically a radiometer, what it does is for a tuned frequency, we are looking at a microwave emission coming out from the ocean. It's almost like tuning to a radio station for a certain frequency. So we know the ocean reflects back into various radiations. So one of the radiation areas that we look at is a microwave radiation. And this microwave radiation is detected 408 miles above the Earth, looking for a pinch of salt in the ocean. If you took a pinch of salt and put it in a gallon of water, we could detect that sensitivity from 408 miles above the Earth. And that's quite a feat by itself.

Narrator: That's amazing. Anything else you want people to know as you're getting ready get ready for launch about the mission, about the preparation?

Sen: Well I'm sure everybody is going to be keenly looking at all the websites and the launch preparation, I would like them to look at the website and keep yourself more and more aware of what Earth does and how we understand the Earth.

Narrator: Right, and that website is the Aquarius mission site, online at www.nasa.gov/aquarius . And we also have another fun way for people to keep track of the mission. Tell everybody about the free iPhone app that people can get at the App store.

Sen: There's also a free iPhone app, as you mentioned. If you go to the App store on Apple. But this only works on the Apple iPhone, the iPad, and whatever I's. And so you go to the Apple Store. And if you do a search of JPL and Aquarius together, and it will come up with the icon and you can download it for free. It absolutely takes no money to download the app. And you can not only see in your palm of your hand how the salinity data, that we think, would look like, and you can interact with it. And you also can see the countdown clock to the time for launch, and you will be able to also learn about it, various aspects of what I spoke about, and also pictures and videos of the recent activities at the space centers.

Narrator: Alright, well thank you very much, I know you're extremely busy getting ready for launch, so I appreciate your time, and best of luck to you and the team.

Sen: Thank you very much, Jane.

Narrator: And just a quick followup on that Aquarius iPhone app-it's also available at www.jpl.nasa.gov/apps .Thanks for joining us for this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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