Erika Podest
Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

WOW, WOW, WOW! Early Saturday morning everything was a GO for the SMAP launch except the high altitude winds were too strong to proceed. Everyone was on edge and ten minutes before the scheduled launch time things turned for the better. The wind situation was deemed “green” and it was safe to continue. Whew!

The launch itself was an exhilarating experience. As the countdown reached the final two seconds there was a sudden boom, followed by a bright yellow/orange glow and a white cloud that mushroomed to the sides of the rocket. SMAP soared into the sky much faster than I had imagined, and within seconds was behind a layer of clouds, reappearing moments later in a patch of clear sky. It was a beautiful sight to see, and I couldn’t help but think of the team’s many sleepless nights and hours of sweat that SMAP was carrying. This emotional moment was celebrated with tears of joy, cheers, and claps for some and deep silence for others. An unforgettable moment frozen in time!

Everything went flawlessly, and the Delta II rocket placed SMAP in a parking orbit and exactly where we wanted it to be - optimally oriented with antennas pointed for initial communication and the solar arrays pre-aligned with the sun. A camera on the rocket captured a jaw-dropping video of the spacecraft separation and subsequent solar array deployment. Check it out:

Electrical power flowed as soon as sunlight hit the partially opened solar array. Afterwards, we had almost immediate contact with SMAP. Our debut into space could not have gone any better!

So what happens next? Turning our satellite on is not like flipping a main circuit breaker and having everything suddenly working. In the case of SMAP, we will go through a sequence of checks to make sure all systems are working properly so that we can then start routine science collections. This check out period will last up to 90 days after launch. During this time we will also place SMAP in its final orbit of 685 km.

In the few days after launch, everything has operated extraordinarily well, and our mission operations team at JPL have been monitoring SMAP around the clock (kudos for them). A great start and lots of exciting days ahead….stay tuned.


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