An artist's illustration depicts the PACE spacecraft in orbit around Earth after launch.

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A revolutionary new satellite that will provide an unprecedented look at Earth’s microscopic marine life and tiny atmospheric particles has launched.

The NASA PACE, or Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem, mission lifted off at 1:33 a.m. ET Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The rocket’s booster successfully landed back on Earth about 10 minutes after launch. Just over half an hour after liftoff, the team confirmed that the spacecraft’s solar arrays deployed and it was receiving power.

The launch, initially set for Tuesday morning, was delayed twice due to high winds and cumulus clouds. But the weather conditions were more than 95% favorable for launch Thursday morning.

Scientists began envisioning a way to better understand how oceanic and atmospheric processes shape the planet about 20 years ago, said Jeremy Werdell, PACE project scientist.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA's PACE mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday.

The mission will shed light on how aerosols and clouds as well as phytoplankton in the ocean serve as indicators for ocean health and global warming. The three instruments aboard PACE, including two polarimeters and one camera, will capture a rainbow of data across different wavelengths of light that “allows us to see things we’ve never been able to see before,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

“What we’re doing here with PACE is really the search for the microscopic, mostly invisible universe in the sea and the sky, and in some degrees, on land, too,” Werdell said.

Although designed as a three-year mission, PACE has enough fuel to continue orbiting and studying Earth for up to 10 years. The spacecraft will join a fleet of more than two dozen NASA Earth science missions circling our planet that gather data on oceans, land, ice and the atmosphere to provide more insights into how Earth’s climate is changing.

Together, missions like PACE and the international Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission, known as SWOT, that launched in 2022 could also change the way researchers understand Earth’s oceans.

“We are undeniably in the midst of a climate crisis,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Our planet is undergoing transformative changes from the surge in extreme weather events and devastating wildfires to the rising sea levels. NASA is not just a space and aeronautics agency. We are a climate agency. We leverage the unique vantage point of space to study our home as a holistic planet, collecting vital earth science data. This information is then available to people worldwide, empowering them to make informed decisions on how to safeguard our planet and its inhabitants for generations to come.”

Aerial eyes on Earth’s skies

In January, NASA and other agencies announced that 2023 was the hottest year on record, part of an overall trend in which global temperatures have warmed over the past decade, said Kate Calvin, chief scientist and senior climate advisor at NASA.

The warming is largely driven by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. After being released, carbon dioxide is absorbed by land and the oceans, but some of it remains in the atmosphere and traps greenhouse gases that warm up the planet.

“One of the great things about a mission like PACE is it’s going to give us a better understanding of the exchange of carbon between the ocean and the atmosphere,” Calvin said.

But other factors contribute to warming, including aerosol particles in the atmosphere that are collectively made of pollutants, dust, smoke and sea salt. Aerosols can reflect or absorb sunlight and affect cloud formation, Calvin said.

Aerosols play a tremendous role in Earth’s weather, air quality and climate, St. Germain said.