NASA's Water-Probing Satellite Appears to Be In Trouble

SWOT's main science instrument unexpectedly shut down as the satellite was undergoing commissioning activities.

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An artist’s concept of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) spacecraft.
An artist’s rendering of the SWOT spacecraft.
Illustration: NASA

NASA Engineers are racing to fix a worrying glitch with a recently launched water satellite, hoping to get the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission up and running so that it can start surveying our planet’s oceans, lakes, and rivers.

SWOT, a joint project between NASA and France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), launched on December 16, 2022 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Things were looking good for the spacecraft, which made contact with mission control after reaching orbit, NASA wrote in a blog post at the time.

The satellite then entered into a six-month commissioning period to make sure that all of its instruments are working properly before it embarks on its task of completing the first-ever global survey of surface water from space. SWOT’s main science instrument, the Ka-band Radar Interferometer (KaRIn), briefly powered on in mid-January before one of the instrument’s subsystems unexpectedly shut down, NASA announced last week.


KaRIn’s high power amplifier has been off since late January and mission engineers are still not sure why. “Engineers are working systematically to understand the situation and to restore operations, performing diagnostics and working with a test bed that simulates the KaRIn instrument on Earth,” NASA wrote in its statement.

The SWOT team is hoping to be able to fix the issue so that the satellite can resume calibrating its instruments before it’s scheduled to begin science operations in July.


SWOT is on a three-year mission as the first satellite to conduct a global survey of Earth’s surface water to measure how it changes over time. The data will help scientists better understand the effects of climate change and better predict global flood risks, according to NASA.

The satellite’s science instrument KaRIn is designed to survey at least 90% of the Earth’s surface and measure water height. KaRIn has two antennas on either side of the satellite to bounce radar pulses off the water’s surface and then receive the return signal.


Time is of the essence for the SWOT team as the satellite remains shutdown in orbit, with the urgent task of measuring global rising sea levels at hand.

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