Aquarius is a NASA/Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) mission that proposes to make the first-ever global measurements of sea surface salinity. These measurements will enable improved understanding of oceanic thermohaline circulation and of the changes in oceanic circulation that are related to seasonal to interannual climate variability. Aquarius science goals also address tropical ocean-climate feedbacks and freshwater budget components of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system. These oceanographic science requirements for Aquarius dictate measurements of global sea surface salinity that are accurate to 0.2–0.3 psu, as averaged monthly and over 100–200 km areas. Key aspects of the Aquarius salinity mission design include the instrument with its high-stability L-band radiometers, the precise calibration of the measurements, and the salinity retrieval algorithm. The Aquarius mission will meet the science needs by providing complete global coverage of ocean surface salinity, with an 8 day cycle of observations using a three beam, L-band radiometer/scatterometer flying in a 6 am/6 pm polar orbit. This conceptual design has been verified using observations from aircraft flight instruments. The radiometer design for the instrument and the needed precise calibration is based on proven, temperature-stabilized radiometer designs with internal references, plus vicarious calibration approaches developed in the course of previous space missions.