Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company SpaceX made history on Monday night. Ten minutes after launching a Falcon-9 rocket into orbit to deploy 11 satellites, the rocket’s first stage booster returned to earth, upright and intact. It was the first time an unmanned rocket has successfully landed upright after a commercial launch; an achievement that many say will help dramatically reduce the cost of space travel.
The moment was a milestone, and particularly welcome after the catastrophic launch failure of another Falcon-9 last June. But SpaceX’s next mission is arguably even more important than the last, because it is intended to study a phenomenon that threatens space travel itself.
For its next mission, SpaceX will partner with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the French Space Agency (CNES) to launch a satellite called Jason-3. It’s an ocean measurement satellite, meaning it will be used to measure the height of the ocean from space. In other words, over time, Jason-3 will be able to track global sea level rise.
Why is that so important? Well, as it happens, sea level rise has long been threatening the viability of space travel in the United States. The majority of NASA facilities are either on or very near the coast. That’s because failures — spontaneous explosions, for example — present a smaller risk to the public when surrounded by water. But as climate change accelerates sea level rise, a problem has appeared that NASA likely didn’t anticipate: Many of these space stations are at risk of drowning.
Take the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida — the same place where SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Falcon-9 rocket on Monday night. There, officials are battling beach erosion from stronger storms. Nearby, at the Kennedy Space Center, sea level rise has been moving the tide line closer and closer to the facility, making it more vulnerable to storm surges. According to a NASA report, seas off Kennedy are projected to rise 5 to 8 inches by the 2050s, and 9 to 15 inches by the 2080s — and those are just the conservative models.
“We consider sea level rise and climate change to be urgent,” said Nancy Bray, spaceport integration and services director for Kennedy.
According to CNN, more than half of NASA’s infrastructure — places like laboratories, data centers, and launch pads worth more than $32 billion — is within 16 feet of sea level.
Fortunately, scientists are excited about the possibilities of Jason-3 and the next SpaceX mission. Because not only will it be able to better track the phenomenon of sea level rise, the satellite will also be able to detect the influence of human-caused climate change, according to Eric Leuliette, a deputy project scientist at NOAA.
“All climate models predict there will be an acceleration of sea level change in the next few years… Jason satellites will enable us to detect that acceleration,” Leuliette said in a video explaining the importance of Jason-3. “Only the Jason satellites have been designed to be stable and accurate enough to provide us estimates of climate change in sea level.”
In addition to sea level rise monitoring, the Jason-3 satellite is intended to provide critical data allowing weather forecasters to better predict severe weather events, like hurricanes and tropical storms. That will be great for the general public, but also not bad for coastline space stations, which can be vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.
This is what makes SpaceX’s next mission so important — more important, arguably, than Monday’s huge success. That mission’s point, after all, was to make space travel less expensive. How can that happen if we have to move our space stations? Or worse, build new ones?