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NASA Earth science mission once slated for cancellation ready for launch

Get ready for a game-changing mission that’s all set to explore the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, overcoming multiple attempts to shut it down during its development phase. On February 6 at 1:33 a.m. Eastern, a Falcon 9 is gearing up to launch from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40, carrying NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) spacecraft into a sun-synchronous orbit.

PACE is armed with three cutting-edge instruments tailored for studying oceans, clouds, and aerosols. The star of the show is the Ocean Color Instrument (OCI), providing a wealth of information on ocean color across different wavelengths. Joining the OCI are the Hyper Angular Research Polarimeter (HARP2) and Spectro-polarimeter for Planetary Exploration (SPEXone), zeroing in on atmospheric clouds and aerosols, and supporting the OCI data with atmospheric correction.

Karen St. Germain, the head honcho at NASA’s Earth science division, is pumped about PACE’s potential to deepen our insights into oceans and their intricate ties to the broader Earth system and climate shifts. A pivotal mission objective is to delve into the world of phytoplankton on the ocean surface, going beyond and distinguishing the good from the bad.

Jeremy Werdell, the brain behind PACE’s project, is thrilled about the mission’s capability to pinpoint the location and movement of different phytoplankton species. Complementing data from other missions like the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) spacecraft, PACE promises to spill the beans on what’s happening in our surface oceans.

But that’s not all – PACE’s data is gearing up to be a game-changer in tracking various aerosols in the atmosphere. This means we’re talking air quality, ecosystem interactions, and even cloud formation insights. Andy Sayer, the atmospheric scientist at PACE, stresses the dynamic nature of this data and highlights that space-based observations are the only way to tackle it.

Despite a rollercoaster ride with potential cancellations, PACE is flexing its resilience and flaunting the support of the community. With a hefty price tag of $964 million, PACE faced the budget axe during its development phase by the Trump administration. However, all four attempts to pull the plug on PACE were shut down by Congress, underscoring the community’s understanding of its potential impact.

PACE’s official lifespan is three years, but NASA’s optimistic – there’s enough fuel and resources onboard to keep it operational for at least a decade. After the launch, PACE will undergo a 60-day commissioning period, with the first batch of data expected to hit the scene around day 40 to 50. What’s more, all PACE data will be up for grabs, with no exclusivity period for the mission’s science team.

As PACE gears up for its mission to revolutionize our understanding of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, its journey from the brink of cancellation to liftoff is a testament to the unwavering commitment and support of the scientific community.

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