WASHINGTON — A Falcon 9 successfully launched an Earth science mission for Europe and Japan May 28 as part of the European Space Agency’s ongoing, if temporary, reliance on SpaceX for space access.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 6:20 p.m. Eastern. The payload, the Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) spacecraft, separated from the upper stage about 10 minutes after liftoff.

Simonetta Cheli, director of Earth observation programs at ESA, said in a post-launch interview that controllers were in contact with the spacecraft. “It is all nominal and on track.”

Spacecraft controllers will spend the weeks and months ahead checking out the spacecraft’s instruments and calibrating them, she said. That will allow the first release of science data from EarthCARE around the end of this year or early next year.

EarthCARE is an 800-million-euro ($870 million) ESA-led mission to study clouds and aerosols in the atmosphere. The spacecraft carries four instruments, including a cloud profiling radar provided by the Japanese space agency JAXA at a cost of 8.3 billion yen ($53 million). JAXA dubbed the spacecraft Hakuryu or “White Dragon” because of the spacecraft’s appearance.

The 2,200-kilogram spacecraft, flying in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 393 kilometers, will collect data on clouds and aerosols in the atmosphere, along with imagery and measurements of reflected sunlight and radiated heat. That information will be used for atmospheric science, including climate and weather models.

“EarthCARE is there to study the effect of clouds and aerosols on the thermal balance of the Earth,” said Dirk Bernaerts, ESA’s EarthCARE project manager, at a pre-launch briefing May 21. “It’s very important to observe them all together at the same location at the same time. That is what is unique about this spacecraft.”

Other spacecraft make similar measurements, including NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) spacecraft launched in February. “The observation techniques are different,” he said. “We observe the same thing but observe slightly different aspects of the clouds and aerosols.” He added that EarthCARE would use PACE data to help with calibration and validation of its observations.

Development of EarthCARE took about two decades and resulted in cost growth that Cheli estimated at the pre-launch briefing to be 30%. Maximilian Sauer, EarthCARE project manager at prime contractor Airbus, said several factors contributed to the delays and overruns, including technical issues with the instruments as well as effects of the pandemic.

One lesson learned from EarthCARE, Cheli said in the post-launch interview, was the need for “strict management” of the project, which she said suffered from challenges of coordinating work between agencies and companies. The mission also underscored the importance of strong support from member states as it worked to overcome problems, she added.

Another factor in EarthCARE’s delay was a change in launch vehicles. EarthCARE was originally slated to go on a Soyuz rocket but ESA lost access to the vehicle after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The mission was first moved to Europe’s Vega C, but ESA decided last June to launch it instead on a Falcon 9, citing delaying in returning that rocket to flight as well as modifications to the rocket’s payload fairing that would have been needed to accommodate EarthCARE.

Technically, the shift in launch vehicles was not a major problem for the mission. “Throughout the changes in the launchers we did not have to change the design of the spacecraft,” said Bernaerts.

He said that, during environmental tests, engineers put the spacecraft through conditions simulating different launch vehicles to prepare for the potential of changing vehicles. “From the moment we knew that Soyuz was not available, we have been looking at how stringently we could test the spacecraft to envelope other candidate launchers. That’s what we did and that worked out in the end.”

EarthCARE is the second ESA-led mission to launch on a Falcon 9, after the Euclid space telescope last July. Another Falcon 9 will launch ESA’s Hera asteroid mission this fall.

“We had a good experience with Euclid last year,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, in a post-launch interview. “Our teams and the SpaceX teams are working together very well.”

The use of the Falcon 9 is a stopgap until Ariane 6 enters services, with a first launch now scheduled for the first half of July, and Vega C returns to flight at the end of the year. “I hear lots of questions about why we’re launching with Falcon and not with Ariane, and it’s really good to see the Ariane 6 inaugural flight coming closer,” he said.

Those involved with the mission were simply happy to finally get the spacecraft into orbit. “There is a feeling of relief and happiness,” Cheli said after the launch.

“This is an emotional roller coaster,” said Thorsten Fehr, EarthCARE mission scientist at ESA, on the agency webcast of the launch shortly after payload separation. “This is one of the greatest moments in my professional life ever.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...