There was some good news this week for Elon Musk's private space company SpaceX: It won a contract from NASA to launch the agency's Surface Water and Ocean Topograply (SWOT) vehicle.
SWOT will "make the first-ever global survey of Earth's surface water, in addition to high-resolution ocean measurements, the SWOT mission will collect detailed measurements of how water bodies on Earth change over time," NASA explained in a statement. It went on to say that the SWOT satellite will keep watch on lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, as well as oceans, to observe how bodies of water change over time. SWOT will survey at least 90 percent of the Earth's surface at least twice every 21 days. SWOT is planned to launch in 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
SpaceX already has several important contracts with NASA--the sort of work that will help the company fulfill its plans to go to Mars, Musk has said. In January, it launched NASA's Jason-3 satellite to monitor the world's oceans, and next year it's set to launch the agency's TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) which is designed to search for planets orbiting other stars.
Not all of the $112 million will go to SpaceX. NASA has explained that $112 million is the full cost of the program, with some of the funds going for spacecraft processing, payload integration, and tracking and telemetry support. Still it's a welcome vote of confidence after a SpaceX rocket exploded in September, destroying its payload but thankfully causing no injuries. "We appreciate NASA's partnership and confidence in SpaceX as a launch provider," said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell in a statement about the deal. She also said the company was "excited" to carry this important payload on behalf of the agency, the nation and the world.
Not so fast.
Or maybe not. Measuring and helping to manage the world's water supply might seem like a really good idea, given that conflicts around the world are erupting over water. But President-Elect Donald Trump may choose to end NASA's involvement in studying climate change, forcing the agency to limit its research to space exploration and putting other agencies in charge of earth sciences.
At least, that's what Trump senior campaign advisor Bob Walker recently told The Guardian, saying that there was no need for NASA to study the climate and that "half the climatologists in the world" doubt that humans are responsible for climate change. (In fact there is solid science to support the link between the human-caused release of greenhouse gases and climate change.) Trump has promised to undo President Obama's climate change policies and has already put Libertarian and climate contrarian Myron Ebell in charge of setting the direction for the Federal agencies involved with climate change and environmental policies.
Environmental scientists have reacted with alarm, both to the choice of Ebell and to Walker's comments about stopping NASA from studying the climate. But with Trump headed for the White House, the future of the SWOT program--and SpaceX's deal to launch it--seem uncertain at best.